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This very dangerous mobile phone

Our resources tell that employees of Russian Lukoil Corporation will have to do without their mobile phones at work soon. The devices will be forbidden to carry into the company area. And special cells for keeping the phones waiting for their owners till the end of the working day are being built. An alternative solution will be carrying the device turned off in your pocket but that is for the most suspicious and suffering from the "left home mobile phone" syndrome. There is nothing unordinary new or revolutionary in this situation, many corporations and organizations all over the world introduce these measures. Why did harmless phones become disagreeable and who to?

Ideal masking

That's customary to think that strengthening the restrictions on the phones is a result of the mass spread of camera phones. That is really so mainly but other reasons are also significant. The mobile phone has become an ordinary device, almost an obligatory accessory or part of clothes. And actually a phone in a pocket rouses less suspicion than a powder-box in a lady's handbag or watches. Just let's remember year 2002 and a sensational story about several guns disguised as mobile phones seized in various European countries. By the way, those were quite serious four-charge "toys" of the 5.6 mm caliber and keeping their killing power in a distance of 10 meters. Phone like plaster cast is an ideal box for masking things forbidden to carry or even explosive and that's not accidental that when going through preflight control you'll be asked to turn on the phone that is off and probably the officer will examine the screen. Indeed the size of a phone is not that big now but first AMPS-devices allowed hiding inside about 4 kg of trotyl. Though modern phones gained many other interesting capabilities that make security services upset.

Explosions, fires and other cataclysms

We all know about a traditional prohibition on turning the phone on when aboard. Nobody even considers a statement about the phone transmitter that prevents navigational equipment from working well and thus everybody turns off their handsets. But we are not sure that is really necessary since transmitters of today digital phones are several times weaker than those old analogous ones. The FCC (USA) has already been discussing a possibility to refuse restrictions on using wireless devices aboard partly or wholly. Many of us remember those urgent requests to turn off the phones on petrol stations, areas of fire gas accumulation (yes, really, I've read even things like that!), in hospitals and so on. In the majority of cases manufacturers play safe (and indeed, who needs actions at law?) however I'm not longing for checking that and are you? Though some extreme lovers actually try, a British maniacs group (Brainiacs) decided on evaluating the prospect of "spontaneous mobile phone ignition". The boys had almost impregnated an old car with petrol, threw six handsets around the saloon and started calling to them. They failed to burn the car but that single experiment proves nothing, though we don't advise repeating. Nevertheless, fears of unexpected radiation are present. And even there are some cases when hospital administration forbade carrying turned on devices into operating-rooms and reanimation rooms.

Those very extra functions

Well, technical equipment of modern headsets also makes some specific problems for making security. One may dream for long but there are things evident even for a non-specialist. For instance, dictaphones that may record for hours, GPS modules for detecting position data. The easiness of transferring a signal to the handset turns a phone into a comfortable control block for explosive assembly. Mobile phones have already been used for this purpose not once in many countries.

A plain and easy way to fight with "unapproved" working phones is setting special hardware (dampers). But there are at least two disadvantages - the hardware is very expensive and the signal is damped in the nearby areas.

And considering these all I find it funny to remember about those enterprising ladies that take photos of fashion silhouettes in glossy magazines. So the problem is also present though very small - fewer magazines are being bought!

Phone camera leads to a prison cell

According to some prognosis about 75 per cent of delivered phones in the market will have been equipped with a camera by the end of the year. And that is really bad for security services since many devices will provide good cameras with high-resolution matrixes. Mobile photo engineering doesn't stop developing and Phillips announced manufacturing a small "liquid" lens for a mobile phone's camera last year. Super compact optical system is a tube with two liquids and a space between them may change its curvature and focal distance is changed this way. Unpleasant consequences for a privacy principle are evident as well as potential threads of industrial and confidential information escape. We can make fun of the operations taking away camera phones in Saudi Arabia but large companies find it less funny. LG Electronics, Siemens, Samsung have already taken some steps for restriction on using such phones in their research laboratories and manufacturing departments and Samsung plants visitors have been made close their camera objectives with special stickers already for a year. Car factories (Volvo, Volkswagen and so on) take even more strict steps forbidding to carry cameraphones into the plant area.

And a special question is security measures in defense industry plants. Here the rules are quite monotone and universal: the phones are given away in the beginning of the shift and taken back in the end. In some factories workers are just forbidden to use mobile connection but it all goes to a total requisitioning of mobile phones for the whole working day long. In military units such questions are solved even more radical making officers not just turn their phones off when entering headquarters but even take the battery out.

Worldwide spying fever?

That would seem why this worldwide suspect to camera phones owners? There are plenty of small and sensitive dictaphones, powerful digital cameras and other special equipment available even in household technics shops. The fact is for instance in Renault factory a visitor with a camera in his hands will be rather lonely but the one taking a handset to his ear will be suspected in nothing. And at least he has a right for that. But what if this potential data escape source is a half of factory workers?


Sergey Potresov (sergey.potresov@mobile-review.com)
Translated by Maria Mitina (maria.mitina@mobile-review.com)

Published - 7 February 2005

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