Israeli-invented jammers squelch use of cell phones

Monday, October 18, 2004

Private use of cell phone blockers is illegal in most Western countries, but the tide is turning.

By Olga R. Rodriguez ~ The Associated Press

MONTERREY, Mexico -- It was the reporters who noticed first. Unable to call their editors while covering the weddings of the rich and famous, they asked the priest why their cell phones never worked at Sacred Heart.

His reply: Israeli counterintelligence.

In four Monterrey churches, Israeli-made cell phone jammers the size of paperbacks have been tucked unobtrusively among paintings of the Madonna and statues of the saints.

The jarring din of ringing cell phones is increasingly being thwarted -- from religious sanctuaries to India's parliament to Tokyo theaters and commuter trains -- by devices originally developed to help security forces avert eavesdropping and thwart phone-triggered bombings.

The four Roman Catholic churches in this northern city began using the devices, from Tel Aviv-based Netline Communications Technologies Ltd., after an insurance salesman imported them as a favor for a priest.

"There are still many people who don't understand that being at Mass is sharing a moment with God," said the Rev. Juan Jose Martinez, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "We had no other choice but to use these little gadgets."

Purchased for about $2,000 each, they can be turned on by remote control and emit low-level radio frequencies that thwart cell phone signals within a 100-foot radius.

Users get a "no service" or "signal not available" message on their cell phones.

Although Mexico has no law against the devices, the private use of cell phone blockers is illegal in the United States and most Western countries.

But the tide is turning.

Japan allows public places such as theaters and concert halls to install jammers, provided they obtain a government-issued license. And last week, France's industry minister approved a decision to let cinemas, concert halls and theaters install them -- as long as provisions are in place so emergency calls can still be made.

Officials at Netline, which sold its first jammer in 1998, say they are selling thousands of jammers a year and have expanded their business throughout the world.

In Mexico, the main clients have been banks looking to stop would-be robbers from communicating with their accomplices and the Mexican government, which is planning to use them at prisons, Haim said.

In Monterrey, the Sacred Heart officials acquired their blockers two years ago.

"Whenever there was a wedding, cell phones would ring every five minutes," said Bulmaro Carranza, a parish clerk. "There were times when even the groom would forget to turn his cell phone off."

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