Cell Phones In the Sky

Apparently, the FCC is considering lifting the ban on cell phone use on airplanes. I’ll be honest, I don’t really have an opinion on this issue. I’ve always thought the “safety” argument was pretty ridiculous, since people accidentally leave their phones on all the time, and I don’t believe there’s ever been an instance of a wireless phone causing interference to an airplane’s instruments. Oh, look, I’m right:

One committee member questioned safety concerns raised by the FAA and DOJ. Although mobile phones are accidentally left on during potentially dozens of U.S. flights each day, no U.S. aircraft has ever found interference from phones, said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican.

Thanks, Ted. Anyway, the remaining arguments against in-flight cell phone use are pretty weak. First, there’s the terrorist argument:

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told a House of Representatives subcommittee that wireless systems now being tested by two airlines could give terrorists a reliable link to friends on the ground, and mobile phones could be used by terrorists to remotely set off bombs on airplanes.

Riiiiight. Because the only thing stopping a member of al-Qaeda from using a cell phone to communicate with his buddies or to set off a bomb is the announcement from the flight attendant telling him to turn off his phone. “Sorry, Osama, our glorious martyrdom operation failed. The nice lady told me to turn off all electronic devices!”

I’m also annoyed by the “closing the barn door after the cow’s gotten out” philosophy that governs all airline security. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters? No nail files! Richard Reid had a bomb in his shoes? Take your shoes off! Al-Qaeda’s last attack in America involved airplanes? Time to freak out about airline security! The recent bombings in London were on subways and buses. I haven’t heard anything about plans to outlaw cell phones on subways, have you? I’m tired of our government’s perpetual desire to outlaw technologies just because they have illegal applications. So is Bruce Schneier, who knows what he’s talking about:

This is beyond idiotic. Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it. The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for. Security is always a trade-off. Almost all technologies can be used for both good and evil; in Beyond Fear, I call them “dual use” technologies. Most of the time, the good uses far outweigh the evil uses, and we’re much better off as a society embracing the good uses and dealing with the evil uses some other way.

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

So, yeah, suck on it, DOJ.

The other, louder, argument against the use of phones on airplanes is that it would be annoying.

“If you’re on an airplane, it’s very annoying when you have a chatterbox sitting next to you, or a small child,” said Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican. “I can’t imagine somebody sitting next to me talking in Arabic or some other foreign language on a cell phone for an hour-and-a-half flight.” Westmoreland didn’t explain why someone talking in another language would be more annoying to him than someone talking in English.

Yeah, I bet he didn’t.

Look, it’s not the role of government to outlaw things that are annoying. I’m sorry, but it’s not. It’s annoying when people talk on cell phones on trains and buses, in restaurants, and in frankly almost any public place. But that doesn’t mean it should be against the law.

Ok, I guess I have an opinion on this after all: that the ban should be lifted, but that individual airlines should be free to decide their own policies about cell phone use. But mostly I think that the law enforcement people should get their heads out of their asses, and that the people annoyed by people talking on cell phones should get an iPod.

Cell Phones In the Sky

0 thoughts on “Cell Phones In the Sky

  1. jared says:

    I agree with you completely. Essentially what you’re preaching is tolerance, and that is increasingly becoming the cornerstone of my beliefs. Sometimes it puts me at odds with other liberals, as my tolerance for — and belief in the right to — things like noise, smoking, and Howard Stern, is higher than the norm.

    It seems to me we’re headed in a dangerous direction of not only banning things because they might be evil, but because they are merely distasteful, annoying, or — worse — convenient to ban because such a ban wouldn’t affect “us.”

    I think making stuff illegal should be the last resort. Give society a shot at figuring it out first. Cell phones are a great example: when your cell phone rings in a movie theater, you feel like an ass, and that’s not thanks to some movie theater policy or the law. More controversially, I don’t agree with the smoking ban in bars: I would’ve preferred that the market figured it out. It seem certain to me that the demand was there for non-smoking bars, and I think the market would have fulfilled this demand.

    Anyway – I know the point of your post was more to do with idiotic security measures, but the last part struck a chord.

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  2. derek says:

    In order to allow cell phone use on airplanes, wouldn’t it be necessary to add some kind of retransmission equipment to the aircraft? In the past, when I’ve forgotten to turn off my phone on board the plane, I’ve noticed that I don’t have service anyway.

    If the only thing preventing terrorists from using cell phones on planes right now is courtesy, then I agree it’s silly to continue to ban for that reason. But I would oppose the addition of any technology that would make it easier to attack an aircraft remotely.

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  3. Jared, that is SOOOO libertarian of you. Our goons will be arriving soon to punish you for your failure to toe the liberal line.

    Derek, certainly legalizing cell phones on planes would improve reception (I’ve heard phones ring on planes so it must be possible to get service in some instances). But even if providing cell phone service to planes would make it easier for terrorists to do whatever it is they’re doing, I’m not convinced that’s reason enough to ban it. I think planes seem more vulnerable to us because they’ve been used so prominently by terrorists recently.

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  4. jared says:

    Just for the record, I also believe in affirmative action, so those liberal goons can get in line behind the libertarian ones. 🙂

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  5. I hate to chime in with a “me too” post, but I agree with Jared – making things illegal should be the last resort. I say that as a disgruntled liberal smoker who nonetheless hates cell phones….whatever. I figure cell phone users can have their vice, and I can have mine….

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  6. I agree that it shouldn’t be illegal for people to talk on their cell phones in public.

    I also believe that it shouldn’t be illegal for me to snatch any cell phone (or clicky laptop keyboard) from anyone’s rude little clutches and make of it a merry bonfire when it is being employed whilst the owner is sitting in the audience area of a movie theater, concert hall, or any production in which my son happens to be performing.

    Not that I have an opinion, or anything.

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