Phone jamming hang ups

National security out of range

When it comes to matters of national security, you do not have the right to know.

Recent revelations that some mobile calls will be blocked during the APEC Summit in Sydney this September have only heightened public interest in the heavy security and loss of civil liberties that will accompany the event.

To bring you up to speed, US president George Bush's motorcade for APEC will be shadowed by a helicopter equipped with signal-jamming equipment, blocking mobile reception around it in an area the size of a football field. Terrorists have used mobile phones to detonate remote-controlled bombs in Iraq and the Bali bomb attacks.

Prime Minister John Howard tried to allay public concerns about the inconvenience this might cause by assuring Sydneysiders emergency calls would still be possible, despite the signal jamming.

This technical capability caught our interest here at ZDNet Australia. How was it possible to block some calls, but allow emergency ones to go unrestricted?

Looking for an expert's explanation, we rang the carriers, who have been briefed on the plans. They told us their industry representative, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), was handling all enquiries on this issue.

We called AMTA.

"I can't really comment at all about this issue," AMTA communications manager Randal Markey told us, quite to our surprise.

Despite the contradiction, Markey told us we'd have to call the telecommunications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

We did so. We explained to ACMA that we wanted an explanation of the technical feasibility of the signal jamming, but were told we'd have to go higher up. The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) was the place to go, we were informed.

We got DCITA on the line. The matter related to national security, they told us, so it was best handled by the Attorney-General's Department. I could hear the sound of coins being passed already.

After explaining what we wanted for the fifth time, the AG's spokesperson told us our enquiry should be directed to DCITA. Exasperated, we politely informed them we'd just spoken to DCITA. However, the AG's department insisted we do so again.

Merrily, we called back DCITA and relayed the new chains of command. This was incorrect, DCITA told us. We politely disagreed. They politely disagreed.

We hung up. They hung up [we assume].

Thanks to the University of South Australia however, we did get an explanation. According to the expert, "there's no distinction between outgoing emergency and normal calls". It made us realise why we never got one from industry or government.