Cell Phones Drive Some to Break the Law

These days, rampant cell phone use means people are forced to listen to other's personal conversations. Some people are resorting to cell phone jammers, even though they are illegal. Matt Richtel of The New York Times talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

These days, people get drawn into personal conversations whether they want to or not. People yak on their cell phones just about anywhere: on buses, on the street, in elevators, even - I could tell you stories - in bathrooms.

Innocent bystanders are forced to listen. That's why some people have resorted to using what are called cell phone jammers. Just push a button and the device sends out a powerful radio signal that kills all cell phone transmissions in the immediate vicinity. Now, cell phone jamming devices are illegal. That's made them all the more desirable to some people.

Matt Richtel wrote an article about it for The New York Times this week. He joins us from his home in San Francisco. Matt, thanks for being with us.

Mr. MATT RICHTEL (Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "Hooked"): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How do they work?

Mr. RICHTEL: They work by overwhelming cell phones with this hyper-powerful signal. Imagine, if you will, that the cell phone tower was very nearby. It would send out such a powerful signal that it would overwhelm our cell phones. And that's, effectively, what these much smaller devices do.

SIMON: If they're illegal, how do they get made? How do people get them?

Mr. RICHTEL: They get them from overseas. They're illegal. They subject the user to as much as an $11,000 fine for a first use by the FCC. But this is Internet global economy era, so you push a button on your computer and lo and behold, FedEx brings you your remote control cell phone shutdown device.

SIMON: And how much do they cost typically?

Mr. RICHTEL: You can buy one for $50. You can buy one for $200 for sort of a stripped-down model that will be limited in its range and the length for which it will shut down cell phones. Or you can pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for much bigger, much more powerful devices that could, say, shut down cell phone signals in a restaurant, and then prisons or military establishments might have super-powerful versions of these.

SIMON: Why would an individual citizen want to get one?

Mr. RICHTEL: I guess it's a combination of frustration; a feeling like their airspace is being invaded. I sense in these people a little bit of a prankster's side. Maybe a little bit of quickness to anger. And then finally, I think there is some guilt associated with this. I heard numerous, numerous anecdotes from people who use these things. And almost to a person, they eventually feel a little squeamish about using what amounts to a blunt instrument because it, not only shuts down the cell phone of the person who is the cause of irritation, but also everyone else who might be on a device.

SIMON: Now, have you heard from people who use these devices and defend their use thereof since writing the article that you did?

Mr. RICHTEL: Oh, yes, absolutely. I talked to someone who had bought these devices for fast food restaurants where the owners of the fast food restaurants felt that when someone came to the counter to order and was on the cell phone, it was effectively creating a - not a fast food experience, but a slow food experience, and the line moved more slowly. So when someone on a phone would come up to the counter, the employee would say would you like fries with that and then press the button, and the person's cell phone connection would go down, thus moving them more quickly through the line.

And a gentleman in London, with whom I spoke, he'd be on a commuter train and would try to read on the train. People would be talking away and he felt it was difficult to concentrate, so he would hit the button, and he said, whenever I do it, people start running around asking everyone else, have you got a network? Have you got a network?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: You know, his psychology and that of some of the jammer users I find kind of interesting because something psychologists have told me in the course of my writing about compulsive technology use; one thing that people get annoyed about when they are not on the phone and someone else is, is that, that someone else on the phone is having a more intimate experience…

SIMON: Yeah

Mr. RICHTEL: …maybe even a kind of jealousy or loneliness strikes the person who is being annoyed. So I think this goes a little bit deeper than simply you're invading my airspace.

SIMON: Oh. Matt Richtel, staff writer for The New York Times and author of the novel "Hooked," about compulsive technology use. Thanks very much.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you.

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