October 31, 2022

Mobile Signal Jamming: Reclaiming Zones of Privacy in Our “Always On” World

By Jonathan Askin

TL;DR: 

  • Since the U.S.’ adoption of signal jamming prohibitions, society has changed so dramatically, and communications technology has become so advanced that constant connectivity to the network has produced, and continues to produce, a slew of negative externalities.
  • The rationales behind the prohibition of signal jamming over time have weakened as a result of technological advances. 
  • Constant engagement with connected devices is not only a major contributing factor to increases in mental health issues across all ages, but it also interferes with property rights, privacy interests, and free speech privileges.
  • Signal jamming technology has the potential to effectively address all of these concerns more effectively than any alternatives.
  • In light of these conflicts between technology, society and the law, Congress and the FCC should revisit its signal jamming rules to allow for a limited right to block mobile signals at least within specific private areas at specific times.

More than 50 years ago, the FCC wrote rules broadly prohibiting the use of “Signal Jammers” — devices that block mobile signals. Of course, when the FCC wrote these rules, personal mobile communications devices were simply the pie-in-the-sky dreams of the Jetsons, Star Trek, and Get Smart writers.

But those were different times. Today, it is an understatement to say that mobile communications devices are ubiquitous and that mobile signals penetrate virtually every spot where humans go – our homes, our offices, our bedrooms, our bathrooms, our streets, our subways, our cars, our trains, our planes, our sea-ships, and now even our space-ships. There are essentially no sanctuaries from the “always on” world.

I used to relish my time on an airplane (or even on the subway, if you can believe that). I knew for the duration of the trip, I was unreachable. I could try to clear my head without bombardment, or fear of bombardment, by mobile communications and the ever-growing psychological – perhaps neurotic – compulsion to check my phone. Now that we are expected to be “always on,” there are profound and growing privacy and mental health issues at stake. At least the French, with a nod towards a balanced, sane existence, recognize the growing problem and preclude businesses from emailing employees after working hours.[1]

It’s time for the FCC (and Congress to the extent the FCC thinks it may need more statutory authority for more regulatory latitude) to revisit its signal jamming rules, to provide exceptions to, and waivers of, the outright ban on signal jammers, and to allow for a limited right to block mobile signals at least within specific private areas at specific times (e.g., the dinner table at dinner time).

While the consistency of connectivity would not have been possible without the rapid growth of communications technology over the past few decades, the foundation of its stability comes from FCC regulation. In particular, the FCC set forth regulations that effectively require those with access to the network to refrain from interfering with that access. More specifically, under the current legal framework, the operation, manufacturing, and sale of devices that interfere with licensed radio communications is strictly prohibited. Thus, those connected to the network are prohibited from interfering with their connectivity, regardless of whether there is any legitimate or virtuous reason for that interference.

As the use of cellphones and the Internet began to rise in the 1990s, and with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (the “96 Act”), the FCC received enough inquiries to issue a warning in 1999 that interfering with licensed radio spectrum is a violation of federal law.[2] The FCC’s most recent signal jamming warning emphasizes that “federal law prohibits the operation, marketing, or sale of any type of equipment that interferes with authorized radio communications,” and that there are “no exceptions for use in a business, classroom, residence or vehicle.”[3]

Since the adoption of the signal jamming prohibitions, society has changed so dramatically, and communications technology has become so advanced that constant connectivity to the network has produced, and continues to produce, a slew of negative externalities that are beginning to have serious impacts on public health, individual rights, and free speech privileges. In addition, while numerous methods to control connectivity other than signal jamming have been and continue to be researched and developed, none of these alternatives are an effective method of controlling connectivity in our increasingly Internet-enabled world. Although there are many alternatives to signal jamming thought to be legitimate methods of controlling connectivity, like signal blocking bags or even simply manually disconnecting devices, none have proven truly successful in alleviating the many issues caused by constant, unrestrained connectivity to the network in the 21st Century.

American deserve the right to operate limited-range signal jamming devices on their own private property so that homeowners may employ a legitimately effective method of controlling their connectivity to communications networks. Although statutory and regulatory prohibition on operating signal jamming devices has principled rationales, the prohibition cannot be reconciled with the continually developing nature of communications technology and its impact on individual privacy rights. Consequently, regulation should concede to societal change. 

The State of the Law and the Justification Against Signal Jamming

While the FCC’s general universal service principle – that all Americans should have access to communications services [4] – lies in the backdrop of nearly all FCC regulations and actions, there are two more particular justifications in support of the signal jamming prohibition. The first justification is that signal jamming is a threat to public health and safety because jamming devices can prevent those using devices within their range from contacting emergency services like police, ambulances, or fire-fighting personnel. The second justification is that signal jamming may conceivably be characterized as “theft” because licensed, authorized service providers pay exorbitant amounts of money for their licenses to operate on particular frequencies, and interference with their services interferes with their rights under their respective licenses.[5] Operation of limited-range signal jamming devices only within the confines of a single-family residence, however, does not obstruct the spirit of either of these justifications.

Nonetheless, the FCC’s most recent signal jamming warning further lays out all of the relevant statutes under the 96 Act and the Communications Act of 1934 (the “34 Act”), the relevant regulations promulgated by the FCC, and the relevant provisions under the US Criminal Code which make up the body of law that prohibits signal jamming in the United States. Under Sec. 302a of the 34 Act, the FCC is authorized to make reasonable regulations “governing the interference potential of devices which in their operation are capable of emitting radio frequency energy by radiation, conduction, or other means in sufficient degree to cause harmful interference with radio communications.”[6]

The FCC has warned that there is no exception to the signal jamming prohibition for use in a business, classroom, residence, or vehicle. The FCC has notably enforced the prohibition against operators of signal jamming devices in these exact contexts, regardless of the purpose of the jamming. For example, when the FCC received an anonymous complaint that an oil drilling equipment manufacturer was operating signal jammers to prevent its employees from using their cellphones during the workday following “a near-miss industrial accident that allegedly was partially attributable to an employee’s cell phone use,” the FCC imposed a fine of $126,000 on the company for violations of Sec. 302a and Rule 2.803.[7] Similarly, when a commuter in the Tampa Bay area of Florida was found to have been operating a signal jammer in his car on his commute to and from Tampa because of concerns that other drivers on his commute were using their cell phones while driving, he was fined $48,000 for violations of Sec. 302a and Rule 2.803.[8]

As we can see, the signal jamming prohibition in the United States is not only broad, but rigorously enforced. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons why people have begun to demand and/or use signal jamming devices and technologies as a method to control their own connectivity.

People Want to Use Signal Jamming Devices Because Constant Connectivity Invades Privacy Interests

The Bill of Rights and its guarantees establish “zones of privacy” for individuals.[9] This zone has previously been interpreted by the Supreme Court as including “the sanctity of a man’s (sic) home and the privacies of life.”[10] In an increasingly digitally connected world where individual privacy rights are threatened and impeded constantly, the physical spaces we call home take on an even more sacred meaning.[11] Our homes are, in many ways, the only truly private physical space we have. In the worlds of Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the, individual what Judge Cooley calls the right ‘to be let alone.’”[12]

Engagement with digital communications networks is necessary for participation in modern life. Nonetheless, the enormity and ubiquity of data collection practices has generated mass criticism from scholars, the government, private businesses, and individuals alike, most of whom primarily take issue with concerns for individual privacy interests.[13] More specifically, commentators have expressed concerns not only with the types and volume of data available due to constant engagement with digital communications networks, but also with how that data is collected and how it is used. And while it would be nearly impossible to summarize every issue raised by the conflicts between individual privacy interests and engagement with digital communications networks, there can be no doubt that the threat to privacy becomes real as soon as one engages with a connected device.

While there are considerable efforts being made to protect individual privacy interests from the nefarious and intrusive data practices of “big data,” perhaps one of the most effective methods of protecting individual digital privacy is to allow consumers to cut off access to digital information at their discretion, i.e., to jam their signals. In so doing, signal jamming may become cybersecurity, as a signal jammer can stop data transfers by creating a constant storm of “white noise,” thereby giving consumers the freedom to temporarily “opt-out” of constant surveillance and data collection. It is worthwhile noting that since the FCC issued its prohibition on signal jamming decades ago in 2000, the risks to individual digital privacy have substantially increased and continue to do so. Nonetheless, because signal jamming is strictly` forbidden in the United States, invasions of individual privacy interests will continue to persist as data collection practices evolve at a rate that regulators and concerned individuals alike simply cannot keep up with. Therefore, the prohibition of signal jammers harms individual privacy rights because it strips away any agency one has about how connected they remain in the confines of their own home.

People Want to Use Signal Jamming Devices Because Constant Connectivity Chills Protected Speech

Today, when you go into someone’s home, you will likely encounter numerous connected devices with voice-activated microphones: smart phones, laptops, desktops and speakers such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. This increased connectivity raises a specific privacy concern – that someone else might be listening to our most intimate conversations within our homes. This concern is not unfounded. One study shows voice-activated devices are frequently activated accidentally, and individuals hired by device manufacturers to review recorded audio content report hearing content that was likely accidentally captured.[14] The public’s well-earned skepticism towards devices with voice-activated microphones, particularly uncertainty about when you will be heard and by whom, may chill free speech protected by the First Amendment. 

The signal jamming prohibition applies not only to malicious, but also to willful signal interference. Therefore, it prohibits an individual from willfully interfering with the radio signals connecting their smart devices with voice-activated microphones to the manufacturer’s network despite the individual not having malicious intent. Thus, the prohibition could be subject to an overbreadth challenge, arguing that the prohibition is overbroad such that it not only limits unprotected speech but also protected speech. The prohibition takes away an individual’s ability to interfere with their own smart device in their own home. Without certainty that one’s private conversations will not be recorded and/or heard by someone else, one might not rather say anything at all. In this way, the signal jamming prohibition has the potential to chill free speech. And, while there are devices available to consumers that jam voice-activated microphones from picking up audio signals, these devices are focused on jamming the audio signals of only one specific device (an Amazon Echo in the case of the Alexgate, for example)[15] and cannot jam audio signals for all devices with voice-activated microphones in someone’s home, like smartphones, smart TVs, laptops, and desktops.

People Want to Use Signal Jamming Devices Because Constant Connectivity is Harmful to Public Health

Perhaps the most irrefutable issue raised by the prohibition on signal jamming is the impact of constant connectivity on mental health when users do not have any effective means of control. One of the very first studies of Internet use and its impact on social relationships and community participation conducted in 1998 found that “increased time spent online is related to a decline in communication with family members, as well as the reduction of the Internet user’s social circle, which may further lead to increased feelings of depression and loneliness.”[14] Since then, countless studies have confirmed the decades-long suspicion that excessive engagement with digital communications networks—or  more specifically, Internet, social media, and video games—has direct causal links to serious behavioral and psychological disorders, as well as developmental disorders in children and adolescence.[15]

In the specific context of Internet and social media usage, for example, a phenomenon of “internet addiction” has ravaged Americans, and in particular, youths and adolescents.[16] In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine released a new definition of “addiction” as a chronic brain disorder, and it officially proposed for the first time that addiction is not limited to substance use.[17] Since then, while there has been ongoing debate about how best to classify the behavior characterized by many hours spent engaging with the Internet and digital media, there is overwhelmingly strong support for the position that the constellation of symptoms accompanying this behavior is an addiction.[18] These symptoms include changes in mood, preoccupation with the Internet and social media, an inability to control the amount of time engaging with digital technology, the need for more time to achieve a desired mood, withdrawal symptoms when not engaged, and a diminished social life and adverse work or academic consequences.[19] It has been suggested that this level of device reliance, therefore, may be akin to other non-substance addictions like gambling addiction.[20] According to an article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when an individual receives a social media notification, their brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine along a reward pathway, which provides pleasure and satisfaction.[21]

In a recent study of undergraduate students, 62% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that they were addicted to their iPhones.[22] It has also been estimated that 55% of Generation Z members, those born after 1996 and before 2012, spend five or more hours per day on their phones.[23] In fact, over a quarter of Generation Z members have reported using their phones for 10 or more hours per day and 29% reported being on their phones after midnight every night.[24] Recently, researchers coined the term “alone-together time” [25] to highlight the difference between children being truly “alone together” with their parents, as opposed to the time period during which children and parents are each physically present at the same location but are psychologically, mentally, and emotionally preoccupied by their mobile devices. Studies have shown that device usage between family members is notably concentrated during “alone together time,” [26] begging the question: how can we best rectify and promote the values of family life bestowed upon us by previous generations to fit today’s technology-driven world? In light of this classification of device overuse as an addiction, studies have concluded that to regulate one’s use of their mobile phone is akin to a case of impaired ability and can be associated with symptoms of dependency, including tolerance, withdrawal, escape, craving, and using the mobile phone even in dangerous situations or when prohibited. Some studies have also indicated that excessive smartphone use can lead to musculoskeletal impairment, poor academic performance, and poor sleep quality.[27]

Moreover, while remote connection has admittedly played a critical role in stabilizing the flow of daily life since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, each of us almost immediately became more reliant on digital communications technology than ever before. As expected, studies suggest a dramatic increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression in both adults and children since 2019, in part due to limited social interactions during lockdown.[28] Scholars have also found that people who scored highly on gaming addiction, compulsive internet use and social media use also reported high scores of depression, loneliness, escapism, poor sleep quality and anxiety related to the pandemic.[29] The constant need to stay up-to-date with the latest social media trends and gossip coupled with the desire to be accepted and fit in, in addition to the long period of the time we are required to spend online for work or just to function in society, have resulted in an anxiety-driven and depression-inducing dynamic that manifests itself in a variety of behavioral changes in children, young adults and adults alike. In addition, traditional methods of coping with mental illness like support groups, counseling, and even casual meetings with friends have almost entirely been shifted to an online setting, producing even more urgency to provide people with an effective method to control the extent of their connectivity.

Years of behavioral, psychological and market studies have demonstrated that prolonged, excessive engagement with the network has massive impacts on public mental health. Much of this scientific research is being used by designers and engineers in an effort to solve the problem.  Moreover, there are as of yet no effective alternatives to signal jamming that can supply individuals with the ability to control their network connectivity spatially, so that those afflicted with digital-communications-oriented mental health issues can curb their addictions. Therefore, in recognizing that constant connectivity directly relates to the development of a number of mental health disorders, and without permitting the only effective means of controlling connectivity, this epidemic of communications-related mental health problems will only persist and continue to fester.

Conclusion

The rigid body of statutory and case law prohibiting signal jamming in the United States coupled with the lack of any reasonable alternative method of controlling network connectivity demonstrates that Americans do not have control over their connectivity. On the one hand, while it is important to recognize that access to the network is essentially a necessity of living in the 21st Century, on the other hand, there are compelling reasons why people may want to disconnect from the network, and the signal jamming prohibition fails to address the need to strike a balance between accessibility to a stable communications network and the consequence of having absolutely no control over our connectivity.

The rapid growth of communications technology over the last few decades has produced an unprecedented wave of negative externalities on society. Constant engagement with connected devices is not only a major contributing factor to increases in mental health issues across all ages, but it also interferes with property rights, privacy interests, and free speech protections. In turn, society has begun to explore methods for controlling connectivity, but to no avail. Nonetheless, while signal jamming technology has the potential to effectively address all of these concerns, operation of signal jamming devices is strictly prohibited in the United States. In light of these conflicts between technology, society and the law, Congress and the FCC should revisit and amend the bright line prohibition on operating signal jamming devices to permit the operation of limited-range signal jamming devices in single-family residences. 


Jonathan Askin is a DCI Innovation Law and Policy Fellow and a Professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. The views written here by Professor Askin do not necessarily reflect the views of the Data Catalyst Institute. 


[1] See, e.g., Under French Law, Businesses Can’t Email Employees After Work Hours https://www.good.is/money/france-lets-you-disconnect 

[2] See S. Robert Carter, III, The Sound of Silence: Why and How the FCC Should Permit Private Property Owners to Jam Cell Phones, 28 Rutgers Computer & Tech. L.J. 343, 351 (2002) [hereinafter The Sound of Silence].

[3] Fed. Comm. Comm’n, Jammer Enforcement, https://www.fcc.gov/general/jammer-enforcement.

[4] Fed. Comm. Comm’n, Universal Service, https://www.fcc.gov/general/universal-service (last visited Oct. 29, 2021).

[5] Id.

[6] 47 U.S.C.A. § 302a(a) (2012).

[7] In the Matter of Taylor Oilfield Mfg., Inc. Broussard, Louisiana, 28 F.C.C. Rcd. 4972, 4972 (2013). See also In the Matter of the Supply Room, Inc. Oxford, Alabama, 28 F.C.C. Rcd. 4981, 4981 (2013).

[8] In the Matter of Jason R. Humphreys Seffner, Fla., 29 F.C.C. Rcd. 5476 (2014).

[9] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484 (1965)

[10] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 485 (1965) (quoting Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 630 (1886).

[11] As just one example, the FTC reported that Internet Service Providers collect and share sensitive personal data from consumers that is beyond consumer understanding or expectation. See Federal Trade FCC, A Look At What ISPs Know About You: Examining the Privacy Practices of Six Major Internet Service Providers 44 (2021), https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/look-what-isps-know-about-you-examining-privacy-practices-six-major-internet-service-providers/p195402_isp_6b_staff_report.pdf.

[12] Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193, 193 (1890).

[13] See generally, Fed. Trade Comm’n, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers (Mar. 2012) (Proposing a three-pronged framework of best practices for companies to implement in order to protect consumer privacy: “privacy by design”, simplified choices for businesses and consumers, and greater transparency with data use practices.)

[14] Kashmir Hill, Activate This ‘Bracelet of Silence,’ and Alexa Can’t Eavesdrop, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2020); Matt Day et al., Thousands of Amazon Workers Listen to Alexa Users’ Conversations, Time (Apr. 11, 2019); Grant Clauser, Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?, N.Y. Times (Aug. 8, 2019).

[15] See Alexagate, https://alexagate.com/ (selling a microphone jammer for Amazon Echo devices); Pozio, https://pozio.com/ (selling a phone cradle for various types of smartphones).

[16] Igor Pantic, Online Social Networking and Mental Health, Cyberpsychol. Behav. Soc. Network J.  (Oct. 2014).

[17] Wong, H.Y. et al., Relationships between Severity of Internet Gaming Disorder, Severity of Problematic Social Media Use, Sleep Quality and Psychological Distress, Int. J. Envtl Res. Pub. Health (2020); Funk JB et al., Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization?, J Adolesc. 27(1):23-39 (2004).

[18] Hilarie Cash et al., Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice, Current Psychiatric Rev. (2012).

[19] Public Policy Statement: Definition of Addiction, Am. Soc’y of Addiction Med. (Aug. 15, 2011), https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/public-policy-statements/1definition_of_addiction_long_4-11.pdf.

[20] Cash et al., supra note 3. 

[21] Id.

[22] Sara Thomée, Mobile Phone Use and Mental Health. A Review of the Research That Takes a Psychological Perspective on Exposure,  15 Int. J. Envtl. Res. Pub. Health (2018), available at: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/12/2692.     

[23] Trevor Haynes, Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time, Harvard University Science in the News (May 1, 2018), https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

[24] Chad Tossell et al., Exploring Smartphone Addiction: Insights from Long-Term Telemetric Behavioral Measures, 9 Int. J. Interactive Mobile Tech., 37-43 (2015), available at: https://online-journals.org/index.php/i-jim/article/view/4300/3448

[26] 99 Firms Statistics, Generation Z Statistics, https://99firms.com/blog/generation-z-statistics/#gref (last visited Mar. 17, 2021). 

[27] Id. 

[28] Killian Mullan & Stella Chatzitheochari, Changing Times Together? A Time-Diary Analysis of Family Time in the Digital Age in the United Kingdom, 81 J. Marriage & Family, 795-811 (2019), available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12564.  

[29] Id. 

[30] Tine A. Eide et al., Smartphone Restriction and its Effect on Subjective Withdrawal Related Scores, Frontiers in Psychology (Aug. 13, 2018),      https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01444/full; see also Pooja S. Tandon et al., Association of Children’s Physical Activity and Screen Time With Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic, 4 JAMA Netw Open. 10 (Oct. 2021), available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2784611 (finding that children who turned to screens during the COVID-19 pandemic had worse mental health outcomes).       

[31] See Allison Abbott, COVID’s mental-health toll: how scientists are tracking a surge in depression, Nature (Feb. 2021), https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00175-z.[32] Blossom Fernandes et al., The Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Internet Use and Escapism in Adolescents, 7 Revista de Psicología Clínica con Niños y Adolescentes 59 (2020).   

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