Don’t switch off mobile phone networks, extend them

Terrorists may talk to each other using mobile phones, just like any other people in this world. They may even use them, theoretically, to set off bombs from a distance. This has led governments to consider switching off mobile phone networks after terrorist attacks. In the same vein, allowing the use of mobile phones on airplanes in flight worries them a lot. This is nonsensical for a number of reasons.

Mobile phones have played a very important role in reducing panic and coordinating rescue efforts in several large terrorist attacks recently. There is no doubt that they are one of the most important factors of reducing the ill effects of such attacks. And still, authorities want to switch them off just when they’re needed most. Why? Because they think that terrorists may detonate their bombs by calling them up over the mobile phone network. Yes, they could, but this reasoning is really full of holes, for the following reasons:

  1. If you switch off the mobile phone network after a bomb has gone off, you’re a bit late, aren’t you? It already has gone off. Pretty obvious, when you think of it, no?
  2. So, you expect more than one bomb to go off, and you want to stop the other bombs from being detonated. That implies that the terrorist must wait long enough, so you get the time to switch off the network. Will he? Not likely. So far there hasn’t been any multiple bombs with decent time intervals between the consecutive blasts, why should they start now?
  3. Prohibiting mobile phones on airplanes means nothing, unless you expect a suicide bomber to be deterred by the risk of being fined. If he uses his phone anyway, do you expect him to be handbagged by the little old lady in the next seat?
  4. The twin tower attack and the bombings in London were (probably) done by suicide bombers. They don’t need mobile phones to detonate themselves, do they?
  5. If a terrorist would ever need to remotely set off a bomb, he could use mobile phones, CB radio or other means. A mobile phone is the cheapest way, but not the only way of doing it.

On the contrary, the mobile phone network is a much stronger force for good than for evil. After an attack, the common people can report what is going on, call for help and be coordinated. It would not be bad if the system was actually extended to allow:

  • Broadcasting warnings and requests to all mobile phones within a certain area
  • Allow massive recording of sound and video from mobile phones in a certain area, when estimating damage and looking for perpetrators. You’d have an instant army of cooperating deputies equipped with video and sound.
  • Getting information to and from trapped hostages, as happened in one of the planes during the twin tower attacks

So instead of handicapping ourselves, shouldn’t we extend the capabilities of the mobile phone networks to help us recover from attacks and to catch the perps?

The terrorists know that mobile phones are a very important weapon against them, so they will do their best to make us stop using them. The best way of doing that is to fool us into believing they need them more than we do. That’s simply not true and pretty obvious if you think calmly about it for a little while.

2005-07-20: Bruce Schneier also talked about this recently.

2005-08-04: And so did Adam Shostack.