Mobile Phones Disabled When President Bush Visits Sydney

In an effort to prevent terrorism, parts of the mobile phone network will be disabled when President Bush visits Australia. I've written about this kind of thing before; it's a perfect example of security theater: a countermeasure that works if you happen to guess the specific details of the plot correctly, and completely useless otherwise.

On the plus side, it's only a small area that's blocked:

It is expected mobile phone calls will drop out in an area the size of a football field as the helicopter passes overhead.

EDITED TO ADD (5/19): Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (5/20): The Register article.

Posted on May 16, 2007 at 1:55 PM • 54 Comments

Comments

antibozoMay 16, 2007 2:16 PM

"It is expected mobile phone calls will drop out in an area the size of a football field as the helicopter passes overhead."

In that case, the loss of cell coverage would serve as a signal to potential terrorists that the targeted helicopter is passing overhead.

That doesn't really sound like a good idea to me, but what do I know?

Manuel DelgadoMay 16, 2007 2:26 PM

To antibozo: the noise of the helicopter would signal the chopper's passing much more efficiently.

By the way, could the jamming signal emitted by the helicopter be used to detonate a bomb?

bearMay 16, 2007 2:30 PM

not that it would last long over a specific area but I would not want to be the person responsible for ordering the outage should someone die due to lack of access to a 911 type service.

Some GuyMay 16, 2007 2:37 PM

I guess it does tell you when the president is getting near, for more conventional attacks.

MikeMay 16, 2007 2:39 PM

Manuael Delgado: "By the way, could the jamming signal emitted by the helicopter be used to detonate a bomb?"

Make a call on the phone. When the call drops out due to jamming, explode bomb.

Brings new meaning to "Can you hear me now?"...

Steve BMay 16, 2007 2:40 PM

It's quite true: initialize_on_null_signal has been going on in Iraq for quite some time; at least since coalition vehicles were fitted with jammers. As soon as a signal was lost (due to the presence of the nearby jamming vehicle), the IED was initiated - sometimes effectively.

There are more reasonable ways they could have done this; the cell-phone system is hackable (from the networks point of view). Some good intel could have been garnered for what is, very little risk.

Geoff LaneMay 16, 2007 2:42 PM

Film Plot ---

A huge shaped charge is placed in a building along the probably flight path. A suitable charge will generate a large plasma beam consisting of vaporized metal straight up into the sky. The trigger is the LACK of a cellphone signal. The 'copter passes over and shoots itself down.

This is not original. See the book The Trigger by A C Clark and M K McDowell which describes what happens when a device is invented that can remotely trigger all kinds of explosive. For a while it's a wonder, until terrorists realise all they have to do is reverse their tactics.

tjvmMay 16, 2007 2:52 PM

Setting aside this particular measure, I wonder if a US President will eventually get un-invited somewhere because the host country is unwilling to accomodate the proposed security procedures. Surely there is a limit to the number of hoops people will jump through to get the President to come to town.

krunMay 16, 2007 2:56 PM

I find it funny that these security measures are taken in Australia but not in the US or any other place.
If you travel from Australia to the USA - everyone is subject to a "special" screening including bags being fully searched and being patted down. That is everyone including small children. I guess the number of people flying from to the US from Australia is small enough to not cause enough of an outcry.

Brooklyn NY ResidentMay 16, 2007 3:00 PM

So what's the big deal as they shutdown traffic all over New York City when he's in town and decides to move from place to place. IMHO, if he can't visit anywhere without the Secret Service having to take all these overboard security precautions they maybe he should stay in the White House and just make "virtual" visits here and there. :-)

ARMMay 16, 2007 3:04 PM

I'm not sure that I buy into the "Security Theater" analysis. I'm not thinking that the Secret Service is relying on this to prevent a bombing.

This seems more like a heads-up to the public, than anything else. After all, anyone in the path of the motorcade, or thinking of going down to watch or protest should be informed that their cellular telephones won't work while their in "close" proximity to the President. Depending on the route, this has the potential to kill some important calls, and cost people some money.

Say, Mr. Schneier, a clarification, please. Does a suite of countermeasures constitute security theater, if each of the individual countermeasures is narrowly focussed? Is this the case because it leaves too many possible gaps, is simply an inefficient way to deal with the broad range of possible threats? Both? Neither?

Thanks!

AnonymousMay 16, 2007 3:10 PM

Dudes, blowing up the helicopter is a mission failure -- the prez is in the limo, not the helicopter.

ProbitasMay 16, 2007 3:21 PM

"Setting aside this particular measure, I wonder if a US President will eventually get un-invited somewhere because the host country is unwilling to accomodate the proposed security procedures. "

He has been off my invite list for some time now.

antibozoMay 16, 2007 3:21 PM

Manuel Delgado> the noise of the helicopter would signal the chopper's passing much more efficiently.

The noise could be any helicopter. The cell blackout tells you which one it is. This could be used as a remote trigger mechanism, along the same lines as the escalation between IED remote triggers and countermeasures in Iraq.

AlexMay 16, 2007 3:29 PM

@ARM: there is a proverb for a range of individual narrowly focussed countermeasures: as leaky as a sieve....
To make this concrete: blocking mobile phones leaves most of the electromagnetic spectrum open and usable. Or do you think they will block everything between 3 Hz and 300 Ghz

TomMay 16, 2007 3:33 PM

antibozo hit the nail on the head. Last time Marine One flew over me (the president was about 100 feet over my head while leaving MSI Chicago about a year ago) there were three identical choppers spaced about a half mile apart, I assume that this was security through obscurity, with two of them operating as decoys. In that situation, assuming that only the chopper with the president in it cuts the cell phones, then bam, you wait for the one that cuts your reception and then you know which one to hit.

I sincerely hope that they're intelligent enough to have the decoy choppers jam the cell coverage too. From a security perspective, in this case, I think they would have been better off not publishing this information, as the affected area is so tiny that probably no one would have noticed what had happened.

theTSAMay 16, 2007 3:34 PM

For planning to take down a US military helicopter carrying the president of the US, you have all been tagged for a one way trip to Guantanamo and/or inclusion on the no fly list.

Have a nice day.

JoshuaMay 16, 2007 3:37 PM

"Dudes, blowing up the helicopter is a mission failure -- the prez is in the limo, not the helicopter."

In what way? A successful take-down of the helicopter would still prove the attackers' competence in getting close enough to the President to disable part of his security net. That in itself would have propaganda value.

David Dyer-BennetMay 16, 2007 3:37 PM

I'm waiting for the story after some terrorist attack to include a guy who saw the attacker "acting hinky" and tried to call 911 but couldn't get through....

TimMay 16, 2007 3:39 PM

Rafic Hariri had the same jamming system for his convoy in Beirut.
Guess what happened ????

RealistMay 16, 2007 3:43 PM

Why not just have a device that homes in on, or relies on peaking of, the jamming signal?

SchizohedronMay 16, 2007 4:07 PM

In my mind, I read this story in "Beyond Fear," but I could be wrong; it's been a while (forgive me, Bruce). The story was IIRC that a diamond that had to get from Africa to England was given all manner of very public, very heavy security, but was in reality mailed without notice or special marking in a common box via normal post.

I'd be more impressed if Bush took this tack than the "We're coming through; your cellphone calls can wait" method. Send the usual Line of Black Cars, then have Bush driven to the same destination in a normal car through usual traffic. At 65 mph, one guy in a suit looks like another. Yeah, I know it would never happen, but it would be ballsy.

RichardMay 16, 2007 4:47 PM

I wonder how this affects telcos service warranties, or if it will interfere with other signals such as emergency services. I smell a law suit.

Vincent GableMay 16, 2007 4:49 PM

I think this is actually just about the only example of when cutting off cell phones is the right thing to do.

It's not just a countermeasure against the particular plot of cellphone-detonated bombs. It makes it harder for the bad guys to coordinate and communicate. Any two-way radio system is also jammable. This event is planned in advance, so the good guys have time to test their communication system and make sure it works in the face of any of the jamming they are going to be running.

Since the area is going to be swarming with security, who have their own communication systems, this does not significantly hamper the good guys ability to communicate and coordinate. Remember, unlike a city or even an airport, the ratio of security and emergency personal to civilians will be astronomically high. It does not matter if a civilian can't call the fire department, because there will be enough security there to notice if a fire breaks out. Similarly, since there will be so many trained professionals around, not getting a call from an untrained civilian who notices something he feels is a bit off isn't such a big deal. In short, the area will temporarily become a min-police state, and in a police state people do not need to have cellphones.

A bomb keyed to the lack of a cellphone signal is not terribly useful. Helicopters will be jamming a relatively large area compared to the size of the motorcade. The cellphone jamming will certainly be in effect while the president is in an area, but it will also be in effect before and after he is there. Since the president will be in an armored vehicle, a bomb would have to be very close indeed. And since this before/after window is so ill-defined, it's not terribly useful as a bomb trigger.

In summary, the real benefit of cutting cell phones is hampering attacker's general ability to communicate, and since this is a special high-security event, the good guys should be able to communicate just fine w/o cellphones.

ThomasMay 16, 2007 5:09 PM

@Vincent
""""In summary, the real benefit of cutting cell phones is hampering attacker's general ability to communicate, and since this is a special high-security event, the good guys should be able to communicate just fine w/o cellphones."""

How do you block EM waves based on the intent of the people using them? "evil" filters?

Are you going to disable landlines?

What about smoke signals? carrier pigeons? shouting? waving flags?

This might inconvenience protesters, and will definitely announce to the world GWB's greatness and importance, but it's not going to do one damn thing to stop someone intent on doing him harm.

Lawrence D'OliveiroMay 16, 2007 5:10 PM

Not all two-way radio systems are equally easy to jam. UWB is in principle very difficult to jam. I understand it's also being licensed for civilian use, albeit at quite low power (and range). But there's no reason it can't be operated at higher power levels, apart from regulations prohibiting such, and if you're a terrorist, you probably don't care about that...

NewtronicMay 16, 2007 5:14 PM

I understand that President Musharraf survived an significant assassination attempt because of such jamming technology. I do not consider such jamming to be theater. Theater should only be used for obviously useless measures such as checking for trivially- easy-to-fake ID's over and over at an airport.

AnonymousMay 16, 2007 5:24 PM

@ Alex

"Or do you think they will block everything between 3 Hz and 300 Ghz"

Of course not. I suspect that while more than just cell phones are being blocked, they're not blocking all of it. Blocking only cellular telephones seems like an exercise in futility. I'm thinking that there are ranges of blocked frequencies - but I'll admit that I'm guessing. (After all, some of them are unlikely to be particularly useful for the stated tactic.) This one is making the news because of the potential inconvenience to large numbers of people on the ground.

Vincent GableMay 16, 2007 5:47 PM

@Thomas

We can't keep the bad guys from communicating, we can only make it harder for the bad guys to communicate. There is no such thing as platonic security; all we can do is make it very very hard for bad things to happen. There is always the *possibility* that the bad guys will win. We all understand this, and we generally don't say that a security measure is worthless just because it is not a panacea.

I disagree that blocking cellphones and/or jamming walkie-talkies won't do anything at all. It will make it a little bit harder to carry out an assassination, because it makes it harder for the assassins to coordinate in real time. Without a way of communicating a team can't work together and get the full benefit of being a team. Sure VIPs have been assassinated before cellphones, but for evidence of terrorists using them consider spotters calling insurgents in Iraq to report when a convoy is coming. The bottom line: if the good guys can communicate effectively, and the bad guys can't that's one more advantage for the good guys.

"What about smoke signals? carrier pigeons? shouting? waving flags?" These are terrible examples; they are an impractical way of communicating in a crowd to being with, and would guarantee a temporary detention at the very least. While it's always possible to invent some clever and inconspicuous way of communicating in real time, it's not easy. Taking away the the easy ways for bad guys to coordinate makes their job that much harder.

As for selectively blocking EM waves, of course we can't do this. But (at least in the US) there are spectrums which civilians can't use. While it is possible to build a radio which uses them, it is difficult. It is even more difficult to make the improvised radio inconspicuous. It is also possible to use a white list cellphone tower that only lets certain cellphones make a call, even if this isn't what's happening in this example.

BrianMay 16, 2007 6:19 PM

Are they jamming, or doing what movie theatres do -- basically have a portable cell 'tower' that all cell phones in the area will lock onto? Then they can selectively allow or deny calls and control exactly which frequencies are used.

The jamming might not be the security measure, but would help control the environment: contain the radio traffic -- effectively reduce the number of active transmitters, allowing more rapid and accurate pinpointing of other transmitters and possibly receivers.

Also -- it controls the people to a degree by changing their environment -- like the man wearing a trenchcoat in august, this controls factors in the 'hinkiness' quotient. Now anyone trying to look busy on a cell phone or raising a hand (they could be aiming a gun) will draw attention to themselves. Yes, many people will raise their cells to take pictures. No, this is not just to prevent remote detonators from working. It's part of a larger context.

It's about control.

Sometimes the positive aspect of security theatre is really theatre: things are not what they appear to be.

ShadMay 16, 2007 6:44 PM

The phone, if used at a fixed installation, can be equipped with a highly directional antenna aimed at a relatively remote base station. The jammer relies on the omnidirectional pattern of phone antennas. By making the antenna directional, the phone will receive orders of magnitude less signal from the jammer than from the base station. As the station can be relatively remote, due to the added antenna gain, it will be immune even to switching off the nearby base stations. The know-how is widely available in the population; many people tinker with 2.45 GHz wifi networks, and that frequency behaves the same as 1.8/1.9 GHz of cellphones, only with somewhat smaller antennas.

Jamming is only a temporary tactics anyway. From a long-term point of view, jammers will become obsoleted by wide adoption of UWB - which is difficult to jam in principle - and smart antennas, phased arrays with dynamically self-adjusting radiation pattern, which will make it yet more difficult for the jammer to deliver the required noise-over-signal ratio.

Bruce SchneierMay 16, 2007 8:02 PM

"I'm waiting for the story after some terrorist attack to include a guy who saw the attacker 'acting hinky' and tried to call 911 but couldn't get through...."

Which is precisely the point. It doesn't make sense to deploy security countermeasures that are only effective if we happen to guess the technical details of the plot correctly, and can actually hurt security in the more general case.

DavidMay 16, 2007 8:06 PM

A previous comment "the loss of cell coverage would serve as a signal to potential terrorists that the targeted helicopter is passing overhead.". The loss of the cell coverage would also point to the location of the President, assuming the outage follows him around...

ThomasMay 16, 2007 10:04 PM

This is a "job security" measure, not an "assassination security" one.

There's an election coming up here.

Having a guest who is so important you can mess with the mobile phones of a major city is worth a few votes.

AnonymousMay 17, 2007 1:12 AM

@tjvm:
"Surely there is a limit to the number of hoops people will jump through to get the President to come to town."
The _people_ don't want the Pres to come to town. G W Bush is probably the most unpopular politician, worldwide, since Stalin. The _pols_ want the Pres to come to town. It makes them look/feel Important.

MarkMay 17, 2007 2:04 AM

Mobile phone blocking is not aimed at the terrorists, it is aimed at the protesters. There are many many more protesters than terrorists. Just looks at the anti-protestor security at G8 conferences and similar.
The governments are scared of large scale protests and the risk of large scale disorder. Cutting off their major method of communication prevents them co-ordinating when the "target"'s plans become clear.
Of course, if they do this too often, the protesters will just switch to other forms of communcation like unlicenced 2-way radios.
Of course the real solution is for the most powerful leaders to stop upsetting large numbers of people by starting illegal wars and promoting the rights of big business over the rights of individuals.

MarkMay 17, 2007 2:48 AM

"So what's the big deal as they shutdown traffic all over New York City when he's in town and decides to move from place to place."
New York City is at least in the US. Would it be acceptable for another head of state to have New York City traffic disrupted because they were visiting? e.g. Queen Elizabeth II what about having RN (RAN, RCN, etc) warships in the Hudson river or RAF (RAAF, RCAF, etc) warplanes flying over Manhatten?

MarkMay 17, 2007 3:00 AM

"This seems more like a heads-up to the public, than anything else. After all, anyone in the path of the motorcade, or thinking of going down to watch or protest should be informed that their cellular telephones won't work while their in "close" proximity to the President."
If they didn't have the fancy motorcade there wouldn't be much cause for disruption in the first place. Why not just transport him in something which looks like a regular Sydney taxi. No flags, obviously non Astralian vehicles, obvious police escort, etc?
"Depending on the route, this has the potential to kill some important calls, and cost people some money." Just hope nobody needs an ambulance in a hurry... Wonder what proportion of the protesters are actually protesting their lives being disrupted for the sake of a fairly unpopular foreigner.

PawelMay 17, 2007 4:02 AM

@Geoff Lane:

>Film Plot ---
>A huge shaped charge is placed in a building along the probably flight path. A suitable charge will generate a large plasma beam consisting of vaporized metal straight up into the sky.

I've seen similar device in 2005 on International Defence Industry Exhibition, Kielce, Poland. However, it was triggered by helicopter noise, not by cellphone signal. It had 4 or 5 microphones ans was able to recognize direction and distance of flying machine and then hit it by vaporized metal from 2 special shaped charges (short distance though, 150 meters or something like this).

TritonMay 17, 2007 5:44 AM

A couple of points here... firstly, under the Australian Telecommunications Act, it is illegal to transmit any kind of blocking signal - the prisons around the country have been wanting to do this for years to make smuggling mobile phones into prisons pointless. Not that "all the president's men" would care about that!

Secondly, it's worse that spelled out thus far - the authorities plan to close approximately half (well 3!) of the downtown underground railway stations and are strongly recommending that people not come to the city for the duration of the 3-day event.

Remind me again, why do we need this event?

bobMay 17, 2007 7:09 AM

This is similar to the US Presidential tracking system where they block small planes in a 30-mile radius around wherever he is. So they notify all the pilots in the US 3 days ahead of time where they can not fly. While small planes are not much of a threat (compared, for example, to a Chevy Suburban); its still a good thing that terrorists are prohibited from becoming pilots or this would be valuable intel.

guvn'rMay 17, 2007 10:53 AM

@Bob, there's no requirement to be a pilot to access the NOTAMs. In fact FOIA probably ensures that most such inferential intel be indiscriminately available, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Public scrutiny is a necessity to guard against abuse of power, hence sunshine laws. Problem is that sunshine doesn't distingush white hats from black, it shines for our opponents as brightly as for us true believers.
:-)

XellosMay 17, 2007 2:25 PM

"Why not just have a device that homes in on, or relies on peaking of, the jamming signal?"

It's generally called a HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation missile), although I don't know if they make one for cell-phone frequencies. I know I've often wished for a few short-range surface-to-surface HARMs in traffic...

JasonMay 17, 2007 4:57 PM

The really dumb thing about this: This is for the APEC sumit. They're shutting down three central city train stations, and causing massive inconvenience to Sydneysiders. The NSW Government told the Federal Government: "We don't need this. If security is so important, why don't you do it in Canberra?" Indeed, why do slap bang in a city of 4 Million people busy going about their lives? They have a purpose built capital a short distance away.


This is all about Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a big Bush fan, being able to drive around in a motorcade and feel like he's important.

HaeBMay 17, 2007 6:51 PM

@Tim: Yes, Rafik Hariri's car (and two others in his motorcade) had jamming devices active at the time of the bombing. The report by the UN commission about the assassination (Mehlis report) discusses them on p.38/39 in some detail, e.g. saying which Beirut cellphone networks had gone out of service in what area because the motorcade had passed through.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/21_10_05_mehlisreport.pdf

It also says:

"...investigation has revealed that there are ways to overcome, avoid, evade or use jamming devices. Different possibilities include a suicide bomber, a wireless explosion using different frequencies from those of the jamming devices or using the frequencies of the jamming devices , a wireless explosion using the jamming devices themselves, a wireless explosion using a satellite phone from Thuraya, the only telephone company working on Lebanese territory with satellite links, a wired explosion using a TNT cable, or a wired explosion using another kind of installed cable such as a telephone line as a connecting wire."

BobMay 19, 2007 10:50 PM

From theregister.co.uk link: "The Age speculates that "heavily armed [Australian] SAS troops" could be deployed on the Sydney streets, with "expanded rights to shoot to kill"."

Now this is a worry! Let's look at the recent Aussies operations in Iraq:

Bodycount
Dead American Contractors: 1 (*)
Dead Iraqi Government Bodyguards: 2
Dead Iraqi Civilians: 1
Dead Iraqi Terrorists: 0

http://fairuse.100webcustomers.com/fairenough/age16.html
http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/furious-iraq-demands-apology/2006/06/22/1150845315009.html

(*) Don't worry, it was his fault. He 'ignored warnings to stop'

FreddoMay 21, 2007 1:35 AM

"I'm waiting for the story after some terrorist attack to include a guy who saw the attacker 'acting hinky' and tried to call 911 but couldn't get through...."

We don't act "hinky" in Australia, and we have to call 000 not 911 to get emergency services.

"Dudes, blowing up the helicopter is a mission failure -- the prez is in the limo, not the helicopter."

Well if you shoot down the chopper it might land on the limo!

Seriously though, we're spending millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers' money so that Bush and his cronies can swan around and cause complete chaos in Sydney. Police are going to get special powers to lock people up without trial during the summit.

Sadly, much of the security is probably going to be necessary to prevent the protests that always occur at such events getting out of hand.

Why would any nation want to host something like this?

On the plus side, we get an extra public holiday in Sydney (so that people don't have to work and can go into the city and protest instead...)

Mois├ęs Marcelo NascimentoJune 5, 2013 2:37 PM

I agree with what a colleague said with certainty was not blocked all radio spectrum frequency of 3 Hz to 300 GHz, researched a lot and have not seen any jammer that blocks all radio frequency beam. At least should have searched a lot which radio frequency that would be used in the alleged target.

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