The government communications watchdog has called for public opinion on whether Australia should introduce mobile phone jamming in prisons.
The call comes ahead of a proposed NSW State Government trial of mobile phone jammers in Lithgow gaol which if successful could make Australia one of about 10 countries to legalise the practice.
Australian and New Zealand heads of correctional services agreed at a Corrective Services Ministers’ Conference in June 2008 to plan the use of phone jammers in prisons and sent the communications watchdog a submission last March. New Zealand has already legalised and is expanding its use of jammers in correctional facilities.
Phone jamming has been subject to years of heated debate between privacy advocates and political parties, while state governments including Victoria have attempted to introduce the technology into their prisons.
Mobile phone use in goals is a global problem and rose to the public radar when convicted gang rapists Bilal and Mohammed Skaf were found last year with mobile phones inside Goulburn's Supermax prison.
The NSW Department of Corrective Services is supplying the communications watchdog with technical data that will shape regulatory arrangements for the trial, while mobile phone carriers and industry groups will also assist.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said it is “well advanced” in its review of the use of mobile phone jammers across the country. Its discussion paper reviews the scope and application of current laws banning mobile phone jammers and examines the need for regulation of mobile phone jammers to safeguard access to legal communications.
It is understood that a previous government test of mobile phone jammers in urban areas failed because the radius of the celluar block could not be prevented from jamming the mobile reception of residents.
ACMA chair Chris Chapman said it is important to assess the pros and cons of mobile phone jamming.
“There would be clear public benefit in inhibiting the use of mobile phones to prevent criminal and potentially life-threatening activities [but] the use of jammers may have implications for the integrity of mobile networks, including the use of Triple Zero,” Chapman said in a written statement.
“Wide consultation with all stakeholders is appropriate before the ACMA concludes the regulatory arrangements needed to allow the use of mobile phone jammers in correctional facilities.”
While laws introduced in 1999 banning the use of jammers in Australia have remained unchanged amid government review in 2003, such laws in other countries vary wildly . The UK and Japan, for example, allow anyone to own a jammer as long as they do not use it. Canada, France, Italy, Norway and others allow the police or prison officials to use jammers.
Chinese and Indian schools use jammers to stop cheaters, Mexico allows their use in churches and hospitals and Pakistan uses the technology in banks and libraries.
It is used in countries including the US to thwart mobile phone-triggered bomb attacks against government leaders. When US President Obama walked down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration, all mobile phones were jammed in the area.
The country's Safe Prisons Communications Bill of 2009 is under consideration which if passed it will introduce a waiver that will allow wireless jammers to be installed in prisons.
ACMA submissions are open for three months and can be sent to LANDS @ acma.gov.au before April 30.