In the years since the 9-11 attacks, Sierra Nevada Corporation has emerged as one of the government’s most agile innovators of security solutions. Much of its federal business is secret, but the company is beginning to lift the veil by crafting a series of products aimed at the civil-security and criminal-justice markets. A case in point is the Thor electronic-countermeasures system, a low-power jammer that can suppress the use of unauthorized communication devices by inmates in prisons.
The advent of cell phones and other compact personal-communication devices has presented prison officials at the federal, state and local levels with a devilishly difficult problem. Inmates can use concealed electronic devices to organize gangs, conduct criminal enterprises, and even plan murders without leaving their cells. That has made many prisons breeding grounds for crime, and allowed some inmates to continue managing crime empires in the outside world from behind prison walls.
Prison officials routinely conduct sweeps to confiscate unauthorized communication devices, but the devices are so compact that they can easily be concealed, and entering the cells of convicted felons in pursuit of contraband is dangerous business. Sierra Nevada’s Thor system has the potential to largely eliminate this problem by instantaneously detecting unauthorized transmissions from wireless devices and jamming the relevant frequencies, meaning that messages cannot be heard by intended recipients. The devices thus become useless, and prison discipline is restored.
The basic idea is to seed a prison complex with radio-frequency receivers that immediately detect improper communications, classify them, and generate a counter-signal on the precise frequency being used that drowns out the intended transmission. The system is entirely passive until a threat is detected, and once activated its jamming effect is localized by the low power output and spectral precision of the Thor technology. That means it doesn’t interfere with the communications of prison guards or outside networks such as the local cell-phone system. Thor also has the ability to identify where a signal is originating within the prison.
Thor technology is already approved for use by bomb squads around the nation, who need a way of jamming the wireless signals employed by terrorists to detonate improvised explosive devices. Its application to penal institutions would create few problems, because its electronic “footprint” is so limited. The effective reach of jammers diminishes as a square of the distance, and Thor uses algorithms to assure that no more power is used than necessary to suppress a nearby transmission. Nonetheless, regulations require that the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration approve the use of jammers within U.S. borders.
With personal-communication technology proliferating at an unprecedented pace, there will be an endless succession of regulatory issues for federal oversight authorities to address. Use of the Thor system to suppress unauthorized prison communications seems like one issue that can be quickly resolved, because there is no evidence it will present an issue for anyone other than incarcerated felons seeking to sustain criminal activity. Federal regulators should put in place a process for expediting approval of such innovations, so they can focus on more complicated challenges.
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