Crime and the Wireless World
© 2013 FrontLine Security (Vol 8, No 2)

Though it may be cliché to comment on the way wireless technology has changed the modern world, today, mobile devices allow us to express ourselves through social media in real time, help us navigate our daily lives, enable us to bank, trade, buy and sell on the move, and allow us to carry the internet’s unlimited information resources in our back pocket.

The irony of this amazing innovation is that cell phones have equally altered the ease with which criminal and terrorist organizations operate – and enhanced their ability to threaten national security.

The use of cell phones to detonate Improvised Explosive Devices has been a known threat to military forces since the early years of the Iraq war. Since 2005, reports to the U.S. Congress specified the threat of cell phone detonators – and identified the use of electronic jamming systems with low-power radio frequencies that block their signals as an effective countermeasure. While such measures can be successfully implemented in a war zone, the consequences of using jamming techniques in North America are not only unacceptable, they are illegal. Recognizing this, terrorists have increasingly attempted to leverage the use of cell phones in planned attacks on Times Square, a Manhattan Federal Reserve Building, Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, a Dallas skyscraper, and Chicago synagogues. In Canada, the now infamous ‘Toronto 18 plot’ to blow up the Toronto Stock Exchange and two government buildings also included the use of an explosive device triggered by a cell phone.

As an alternative to jamming, in March of 2012, the American Federal Communication’s Commission (FCC) sought com- ment on the implementation of wireless service interruptions by government authorities for the purpose of ensuring public safety. The FCC’s request was prompted by the controversial choice made in 2011 by San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transport System (BART) to suspend its underground cellphone service in order to thwart a planned protest and maintain passenger safety.

The FCC acknowledged that wireless communications serve “vital free expression interests,” are critical to the national economy, and play a central role in ensuring public safety. However, the commission noted that concerns that “wireless service could be used to trigger the detonation of an explosive device or to organize the activities of a violent flash mob have led public authorities in the United States and abroad to consider interrupting wireless service.” Not surprisingly, civil rights advocates, law enforcement agencies, and industry leaders have weighed in on the issue.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, news outlets reported that the city’s wireless networks had been shut down by police. Speculation was that the terrorists, since identified as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had used a cellular phone to set off the bombs that exploded near the marathon’s finish line. In the following hours of uncertainty, few questioned the suspension of communications or the implications that a denial of cellular service might have on constitutional rights. The threat of another bomb was imminent, particularly worrisome was the terrifying belief that anyone with a cell phone could have triggered the bomb. Security trumped all.

Among respondents to the FCC request was a privately-held Canadian tech company that offered an alternative to service shutdowns and jamming. The Montreal-based firm had developed an inexpensive, remote, network-based solution that can discretely disable wireless devices that have become “weapons of mass destruction worthy of the most aggressive forms of counter response.” What’s more, because the company’s technology does not rely on radio frequencies, it claims it is capable of operating without interfering with legitimate cell phone traffic and is thus ideal for operations in controlled environments.

This Canadian innovation could potentially provide the answer to a significant threat growing on both sides of the border: contraband cell phones in prisons. For years, Canadian and U.S. Correction Officials have identified the use of illegal devices by inmates as a significant threat to public safety. In the U.S., the problem of contraband cell phones was so out of control, that by 2011, some 15000 devices were confiscated in the state of California alone.

These cell phones are not innocent means of keeping in touch with loved ones. They allow inmates to continue to execute criminal activity, and there have been several cases of prisoners using contraband phones to threaten guards and even facilitate murder. One inmate in Maryland used a device to order the death of a state witness; another in Texas used a contraband cell phone to threaten a state Senator and his family, and a New Jersey prisoner used a contraband device to order the murder of his girlfriend after she testified against him at trial.

Last year, Canada’s Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security reported that the use of contraband devices allowed inmates to continue to carry out illegal operations and organize drug transactions from inside correctional facilities. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews responded to this report, recognizing that “despite continued efforts to detect and seize these devices, rendering these devices ineffective may prove to be the most effective means of disrupting these criminal activities.” The minister did not comment on any proactive investigations or investment into new technology, stating simply that jamming remains prohibited because it may cause interference with radio communications required for emergency management.

Yet in the U.S., an April 2013 report published by the FCC supported the increased implementation of Managed Access Systems (MAS) in prisons. Instead of jamming signals, MAS essentially creates an umbrella over a defined geographical space and then captures and analyzes all incoming and outgoing calls to determine if they are authorized. If authenticated, authorized devices are permitted to transmit normally while unauthorized calls are terminated. MAS systems can also triangulate the location of cell phones, and the FCC has asked service providers to comment on the feasibility of terminating service to specific devices upon request from an authorized party. Only a few U.S. jurisdictions have successfully implemented MAS in correctional facilities because the systems are very expensive, and can, at times, interfere with legitimate wireless activity. Additionally, and perhaps not surprisingly, because the MAS systems are physically installed on site at the prisons, they have been prone to frequent damage. Beyond prisons, it is easy to envision how MAS and the technology developed in Montreal could be adapted to support law enforcement during major security events.

The Wider Criminal World
Having the ability to harness, control, and leverage the flow of communications and the vast amount of data generated by the use of cell phones is vital to countering the criminal world’s increasing reliance on these devices. Cell phones play a critical role in many facets of organized crime including narcotics, weapons, human trafficking, and child sexual exploitation.

For instance, reports from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy found that, in terms of human trafficking, “interviews with law enforcement stressed the widespread importance of one technology: mobile phones.” This in-depth study also indicated that captured information related to cell phone use was “the most critical element, in building their cases against traffickers.”

Often described as a “hidden crime” because it is difficult to identify and prosecute, human trafficking is a US$32 billion a year industry. This modern form of slavery not only provides a regular source of funding for organized crime and terrorist organizations but also has a significant impact on the world’s economy due to the loss of human and social capital. USC concluded “the centrality of mobile phones has major implications for counter-trafficking efforts and may represent a powerful new tool in identifying, tracking, and prosecuting traffickers as well as in other counter-trafficking efforts.” Access to subscriber information, the smartphone’s geolocation capabilities, and the developing capacity to target and deny service to individual users, might even tip the scales in favor of law enforcement.

Allowing the exploitation of electronic communications by government agencies requires strong oversight and accountability. In the U.S., reports in June of this year that the National Security Agency has not only been collecting the private phone records of millions of Americans, but has gained unrestricted access to the central servers of major internet companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, shocked the nation and led to demands for greater judicial oversight despite the program’s authorization by Congress. In Canada, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart recently called for updated privacy laws to better protect Canadians in the digital age.

In 2012, the Conservative Government introduced Bill C-30, the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, which would have implemented mandatory reporting requirements for requests for customer information from telephone service providers. Currently, information which includes a subscribers name, address, phone number, local service provided identifier, and IP and email addresses is voluntarily provided to law enforcement (without any oversight) tens of thousands of times per year. According to data obtained under the Access to Information Act by privacy expert Michael Geist, the RCMP alone made over 28,000 requests for subscriber information in 2010.

Bill C-30 was the fifth attempt since 2005 to modernize Canada’s wiretap and electronic surveillance legislation, and once again the proposed laws spawned significant debate about the virtues of privacy versus security. Unfortunately, polarizing statements made by Minister Toews including, “either stand with us or stand with the child pornographers,” and a campaign led by hacker group Anonymous which claimed "all this legislation does is give your corrupted government more power to control its citizens,” left little room for compromise. Instead of bringing Canadian surveillance laws into the 21st century, the bill was abandoned, leaving both law enforcement officials and privacy advocates frustrated.

Until the government can pass legislation that authorizes police and national security agencies to track, interdict, and in a crisis, deny cell phone usage in a way that conforms to Charter values, both the security and privacy of Canadians is being compromised. Quite frankly, the only people who benefit from maintaining the status quo are criminals and terrorists, like the Boston Marathon Bombers.

Leah West Sherriff served 10 years as an Officer in the Canadian Army and has an MA in Intelligence. She is currently studying Law at the University of Toronto, and plans to run the Boston Marathon again in 2014.
© FrontLine Security 2013