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What are phone jammers trying to tell us?

Mike Elgan | May 31, 2016
Cellphone jammers are illegal. So why do people keep using them? (Hint: because tech moves too slowly.)

Cellphone jammers prevent phones from working. They're being used in cars, public places and exam halls.

Jammers aren't new -- they've been around for years -- and they're illegal in many countries, including in the U.S., but use of jammers is growing fast.

But are phones really the problem? And are jammers really the solution?

I think cellphone jammers are being used as a Band-Aid, as the wrong solution to solve three societal problems that should be solved by much better technology.

Here are the three biggest problems cellphone jammers are trying, and failing, to solve, and what I think are the better solutions.

1. The 'phones-are-dangerous' problem

A Florida man named Jason R. Humphreys wanted to save lives by preventing people along his daily commute from using their phones while driving. So Humphreys installed a cellphone jammer in the back of the passenger seat of his SUV. The scheme worked for two years, as far as Humphreys knew. But the police, whose own communications were occasionally disrupted by his jammer, were less than thrilled. So they tracked him down and caught him two years ago. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission fined him $48,000 for breaking U.S. laws against the use of jammers.

As I've expressed in this space before, I think that drivers distracted with smartphones would be distracted by something else without smartphones. In other words, smartphones don't cause accidents, humans do.

The horrible reality is that human drivers kill around 1.24 million people a year worldwide. That's a far higher annual rate than the number of people who die in wars.

Humphreys' misguided action was the wrong solution to the problem. What we really need is to transition to self-driving cars as quickly as possible. The sooner we do it, the more lives will be spared.

2. The 'phones-are-annoying' problem

A Chicago man named Dennis Nicholl was arrested recently for allegedly using a cellphone jammer on a commuter train. Police were tipped off when photos of the man with his jammer started circulating online. After other commuters started talking on their smartphones, Nicholl pulled out a jammer, flipped a switch, and all the phones went silent. Nicholl's attorney said his client only wanted a little peace and quiet.

Comedian Dave Chappelle recently used a product from a company called Yondr to silence calls during 13 of his comedy gigs in Chicago. Yondr makes a lockable, radio-proof bag -- a kind of Faraday cage. As they entered the venue, Chappelle fans were required, as a condition of admission, to put their smartphones inside a Yondr bag, which was then locked. They were allowed to keep possession of the bags, but those who wanted to use their phones had to leave the no-phone zone and have someone unlock the Yondr bag as they exited.


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