Teenage criminals should be forced to wear a Wi-Fi jammer, rather than sentenced to jail time for digital crimes, one of the UK’s top police officers has suggested. The cop admits that there might be some practical or human rights issues, but that shouldn’t stop the ministry of justice from considering body-worn Wi-Fi jammers.
Computer-based crime is on the rise, and the average age of those criminals in the UK is just 17, down from an average age of 24 in 2014. The most common digital crimes in the UK are bank account fraud (usually via phishing or malware), followed by non-investment fraud, computer viruses, and good ol’ hacking. If you add the numbers up, 51 percent of all fraud offences in the UK are believed to be “cyber-related.”
“We have got to stop using 19th century punishments to deal with 21st century crimes,” chief superintendent Gavin Thomas, president of the Police Superintendents Association, told the Telegraph. “It costs around £38,000 a year to keep someone in prison but if you look at the statistics around short term sentencing the recidivism rate is extraordinarily high … If you have got a 16-year-old who has hacked into your account and stolen your identity, this is a 21st century crime, so we ought to have a 21st century methodology to address it.”
In addition to wearing a Wi-Fi jammer, Thomas suggests that teen offenders “could be required to go on an ethics and value programme about how you behave online, which is an area that I think is absent at the moment.”
Wi-Fi jammers are devices that create radio interference on the frequencies used by the suite of 802.11 WLAN standards. The interference prevents any nearby devices from picking up a Wi-Fi signal from a wireless access point. Depending on the power output of the jammer, the interference bubble can be anything from a few metres (0.5W), to hundreds of metres (100W). Because Bluetooth and Wi-Fi both use the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, a Wi-Fi jammer will usually block Bluetooth as well. You can also buy a single jamming device that blocks 2G, 3G, and 4G signals, in addition to Wi-Fi. Prices range from about £100 to thousands of pounds, depending on your requirements.
The problem is, radio jammers are very illegal in the UK. Deliberate interference—even in a theatre, cinema, library, or examination hall—is an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act and can land you in jail for a couple of years, and/or an unlimited fine. Scanning for a transmitting device is acceptable (for example to catch an exam cheater), but jamming is never okay because it can potentially interfere with other legitimate users.
Superintendent Thomas might be thinking that there’s a legal loophole if these radio jammers are somehow part of an ongoing police operation, but I suspect that even police use of radio jammers is highly regulated. We’ve asked Ofcom for clarification and will update this story when we get a response.
Presumably Thomas is thinking of outfitting teens with low-power ankle-worn Wi-Fi jammers that have a very short range—but even then, if the convicted criminal is walking around town or sitting in a coffee shop, it’s likely that other users would be affected. Realistically, if the purpose of the jammer is to stop the criminal from reoffending, then it would have to block cellular signals as well—and you can imagine the joy of having your mobile calls and Internet randomly dropping out whenever someone with a jammer walks by.
Let’s not forget that the UK’s emergency services are moving over to EE’s cellular network, too. That would be some sweet, sweet irony if some cops couldn’t call for backup because the criminal they’re chasing has an ankle-worn mobile jammer.
In addition to myriad practical considerations, there are also human rights concerns with strapping some kind of always-on jamming device to the ankle of a teenager. Really, it’s just a bad idea all round; having thousands of wireless jammers randomly bouncing around the country will never work. Plus, what’s to stop those tenacious teens from plugging in via Ethernet, anyway?