Cellular Activity

When mobile phones threaten security, it’s time to ‘decellerate’

This just in: There are now more cell phone users on the planet than wearers of shoes. That random yet eye-opening nugget comes courtesy of WikiAnswers, so consider the source, but still: more than shoes?

It’s no newsflash that we now inhabit a cell-centric world. The increase in the number of mobile phones in the past decade has been exponential and very visible (and, if you frequent some of the same stores, restaurants, trains and sidewalks as I, you can attest it’s also been a very audible proliferation). Cell users are literally everywhere you turn. And too many of them have obnoxious ringtones.

Celler’s Market

According to the International Telecommunication Union, which is the United Nation’s specialized agency for information and communication technologies, there are, as of press time, 5.9 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions. That’s an impressive number in itself, but it’s even more remarkable considering the world’s population is, also at press time and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.9 billion. (The number of people who at least wear foot coverings is 4.5 billion, as estimated by the folks at Wiki.)

As far as inventions go, those numbers put the cell phone right up there with the wheel or, well, shoes. Wireless technology continues to transform lives and to become ever more integrated in—if not essential to—the human condition. And for the most part that’s an entirely good thing.

The benefits of cell phones in emergency situations are undisputed, and, in this age of multitasking, no one can argue against the devices’ advantages in terms of scheduling, connecting and saving time. They provide a convenience almost unheard of 10 years ago.

Yet, cells also have their downside, and as those in the security industry know, annoying ringtones and users who insist on conducting personal conversations in public places (loudly) are the least of it. In the wrong hands, mobile phones can too easily be used to breach security, threaten safety or even commit crimes. When any of those outcomes are distinct possibilities, there arises the need to know where the devices are, to be able to track them and to prevent their use. And because this need is more prevalent than one might at first think, the business of cell phone detection has relatively quietly become an industry all its own.

Phone Homing

If you consider it, there are any number of places that commonly have “No Cell” zones. Courtrooms, classrooms, conference rooms, commercial jet cabins and movie theaters typically have policies either prohibiting or limiting wireless use. And if you’ve frequented any of those rooms in the past year, you know that in all of them people just as typically ignore those policies—some surreptitiously, some flagrantly.

Scott Schober, president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems (www. bvsystems.com), has sold cell phonedetection units to all of the above venues, and he said the demand at such locations is on the rise. His company, based in Metuchen, N.J, specializes in designing and manufacturing the units. Some of the devices are handheld, some are made for mounting on walls and at entrances, and still others are custom-crafted for countersurveillance, made to fit covertly inside water bottles or hollowed-out books. All the models home in on the RF signature of nearby cell phones in either standby or active voice, text or data-transmission mode, enabling the operator to precisely pinpoint where the wireless activity is happening.

“Everybody has mobile phones these days, and so people can do videos and take pictures, people can listen in on conversations, and in a lot of environments that can be very dangerous— it can be a compromise of security,” Schobel said. “As phones get smaller and smaller, it gets harder to enforce the no-cell environments; people can smuggle them in in all different ways. We’ve been effective by the fact that our tools are lower cost, and they home and find the phones and get them out, one at a time.”

Cells within Cells

Where most of the mobile phone smuggling is happening these days is at the nation’s 8,000-plus jails and prisons, where inmates are willing to pay corrupt guards upward of $500 for a single phone rather than use the facility’s builtin, monitored, one-way, collect-call-only landlines. Prisoners then use the contraband cells to contact outside gang members, intimidate witnesses, relay information on transportation of other inmates and otherwise conduct criminal activity from inside prison walls. Schobel said that at this point roughly half of his cell-detection business is centered on correctional facilities.

“The problem is at epidemic proportions in these places,” he said. “It’s not that there are five or 10 phones in a facility. We’re talking in California prisons alone, we’ll find probably 10,000 to 15,000 phones just this year. It’s staggering.”

The other major areas for wireless detection today include installments at some of the more than 10,000 federal facilities in the nation, most of which are designed to be either highly secure or outright SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility)-grade secure. By design, access to SCIFs is severely limited, and all the activity, conversation and data inside these enclosed locations is supposed to be secure and classified and thus no place for a mobile phone.

Because Berkeley Varitronics’ line of detectors also home in on GPS trackers, the devices are being deployed for border security and drug enforcement. Schobel said one of the most rewarding uses of the equipment, though, is as search and rescue tools for finding people who are lost or, say, trapped under rubble after a building collapses. It is, he said, another of the upsides involved with virtually everyone carrying a phone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Security Today.

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