May 31, 2005 4:19 PM PDT

FBI warns of cell phones aloft

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are objecting to a proposal to permit the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices on airplanes.

Unless telecommunications providers follow a lengthy list of eavesdropping requirements for calls made aloft, the FBI and Homeland Security don't want cellular or wireless connections to be permitted.

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission sent last Thursday, the police agencies said any rule permitting "in-flight personal wireless telephone use must consider public safety and national security" concerns.

Cell phones to take flight
A consensus is building to relax rules that since 1991 have banned mobile phone use on U.S. commercial flights.

At the moment, technical and social reasons keep cell phones muted during flight: Few passengers relish the prospect of sharing a row of seats with a yappy fellow traveler. Also, concerns about overwhelmed cellular towers and interference with avionics systems have resulted in the current prohibitions.

The FCC is considering proposals to relax those restrictions. One possibility, for instance, would be to permit "pico cells" inside a commercial airliner that would create a cabin-wide hot spot for voice and Internet links.

The FBI and Homeland Security say that the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, requires that airlines follow strict wiretapping guidelines. The police agencies, for instance, want to be able to eavesdrop on conversations no "more than 10 minutes" after the call is made.

"There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations onboard an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations," the agencies say in their letter.

Other requirements the FBI and Homeland Security are requesting that the FCC mandate include: identifying the seat number of the passenger making the call, making sure police can "expeditiously interrupt" a conversation, cut off service to all passengers except government agents on a plane, and so on.

"That's not what Congress had in mind when they wrote the statute," said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco.

Opsahl called the police agencies' request a "wish list" that extends far beyond what CALEA requires. "If the FBI succeeds in this context, what's to stop them from getting more wiretapping powers than they currently do in other contexts?"


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Thats about the most bizarre thing Ive heard all day.

The FBI wants to listen in on cell phone calls placed from an airplane.. for what reason?

A person on board an airborne plane, preparing to hijack or destroy it isnt going to care if someones listening, and furthermore wont require cellular service to complete their mission. What are FBI agents on the ground going to do about it even if the hijaker did happen to call his mother to say goodbye, hence letting them know somethings up?

Unless of course the government isnt being honest about its ability to remotely control airplanes in mid-flight (even though the equipment to do so is already installed in most commercial aircraft and has been in use for decades) and they were lieing about the events of September 11, 2001 (does anyone still beleive them?).

But thats beside the point. I think anyone with any shred of intelligence can see this is obviously yet another attempt to rob the american public of its rights and privacy masked in the red herring of "protecting the american public from its governement (oops I mean terrorists)" or was that "protecting the american government from its public"? I always get the two confused.
Posted by Fray9 (547 comments )
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Text Messaging? IM Chat? Sign Language?
OK, so the FBI gets their way and listens in to all cell calls. Clever people will just use some other means to communicate. A quick text message like, "Abdul, du u hav pakeg?" would do the trick. Or maybe some Yahoo or AOL chat over the plane's pay-for WIFI. Or hell, how about using your own private network? A couple of laptops or PDAs with WIFI, ad-hoc mode, WPA encryption, and you have your own private, secure network. "Abdul, do you have the package?".

If all else fails, there is always sign language. Surely that cannot be forbidden on a plane if the passenger(s) are disabled, ADA compliance you know.

Now, if I can think of these scenarios with nothing more than a background as a Walmart Greeter, don't you suppose people with a real agenda would think of this -- and more, too? So what does it say about the FBI? Are they just not the creative types, or is this latest pronouncement just more smoke and mirrors for something else?
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
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I couldn't agree with you more...

I am sure no one is going to plan anything while on the flight...years of pre-palanning goes into such attacks. That is where the efforts need to be directed.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Phone taps
What is the point in phone taps anyway? It is not like anyone would say "I am ready to set off the bomb so you can have my XBOX". More likey they would say something as vague as "Steve Jobs is cool", or any other pre-arranged code. Seems to me the FBI/HS just want to listen in on everyone for non-terrorist purposes.
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
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Need more reasons from FBI than...
"to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crisis situations onboard an aircraft".

Is that it? I would have guessed that their explanation would be more in depth than that. If that's the whole of it, then I don't buy it.

Could it be that they are concerned about someone on a plane looking out the window and describing to someone on the ground the exact location of the plane?
Posted by Juster444 (33 comments )
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Personally I say...
Personally I saw forget cell phones, PDAs, computers, etc. on planes. How about keeping the hijackers off the plane to start with.

It would seem to me if the FBI and HS would spend more time doing this instead of listening in on peoples phone calls they air travel industry might be more safe.

I can see it how.

"Yes, judge we let the hijackers on flight 104. We were hoping they would use their cell phone so we could learn their plan and find out who the mastermind was." Says FBI agent Dick Head.

"Did it work?" Asks the Judge.

"No sir, they already had everything planned out, they had no reason to speak with each other. They all knew what each other was supposed to do. They carried it out like clock work." Says FBI agent Dick Head.

"So you let 200 passengers and crew die because you and your bosses don't have the brains of a wad of spit? Is that correct sir?" Asks the Judge.

"Umm... I guess so your honor." Says FBI agent Dick Head.

"Then I have no choice but to sentence you to death. It is clear you are too stupid to live and a danger to the public at large." Says the Judge as he pulls out his pistol aims and fires.

Posted by (336 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The terrorists are coming! The terrorists are coming!
Yeah it seems like more and more that the FBI "needs" more useless powers to protect us from ourselves! Getting ever closer to a police state. Ya know if I was using my laptop I would just use the wi-fi connection to tunnel an SSH back to my FreeBSD box. I have no doubt that the NSA can bust AES 256 bit SSH encryption, but it'll take 'em more than 10 minutes.
Posted by mrhex (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Mobile Phone and Planes
As being one of those individual who used to spend a excessive amount of time traveling for business, I can say that the restricted use of mobile phones on aircraft was a lifesaver. In a world of constant work the quiet of a flight without constant ringers and beeping was a joy. Additionally the use of mobile technology, though it maybe non-harmful to the aircraft, does pose a distraction to customers which in term makes it an unsafe environment in the case of an emergency. I guess time will only tell what the FAA will permit on airplanes but for the time being I can only hope that airplanes remain phone free zones.
Posted by (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
keep them off!
i totally agree. planes on phones are bad news. the annoyance factor is huge, mix in alcohol, tight quarters and the irritability grows extremely high.

keep the phones off. but bring the wifi.
Posted by hugh dunnit (35 comments )
Link Flag
FBI does not understand technology
A pico cell (base station) on the aircraft is only an extension of an existing cellular network. All CALEA functionality is already available via the aforementioned network's MSC (Central Switch).

In other words there is really no difference in CALEA matters between the cell on the aircraft and a similar cel in central NY or LA, etc.

So, I am somewhat mystified by the FBI/homeland security asking for functions that any telecoms engineer can tell you already exist.

Regarding WiFI same thing, all of their capabilities on the plane are the same as on the ground.

Knowing which seat number one is calling from is simply impossible (IMHO of course).

Again, the cellular capabilities being installed on the aircraft are only extensions of regular cellular networks

For emergency situatuions all cellular carriers are supposed to be able to locate their subscribers to within 3 meters/yards or so.

This is done via GPS functionality built into the phone or radio triangulation.

GPS is not accurate enough (a 3 meter spread covers around 10-15 seats if not more) and I doubt you can rely on it in an enclosed aircraft.

Radio triangulation would require multiple base stations in the aircraft and even then may not work.

If they are so concerned, let them buy a subscription to the airline's WiFi and simply place WiFi or ethernet based webcameras throughout the plane to be activated/accessed only in case of emergency (ACLU will LOVE that)
Posted by (1 comment )
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