Jamming excuses won't fly

Read time 3min 10sec
A cellphone jammer cannot stop drones from flying, say experts.
A cellphone jammer cannot stop drones from flying, say experts.

Government's claims that a jamming device was used to make sure the air above Parliament was a no-fly-zone during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) have been rubbished as a cover up and an excuse.

Minister of state security, David Mahlobo, this week explained the agency was mandated to ensure no aircraft, "aerodrones" or unmanned aerial vehicles were allowed in the space above and around Parliament last Thursday. "However, the application of this counter-threat measure was prolonged beyond the normal operational requirements."

Mahlobo added there was no intention to disrupt media from filing stories, or prevent communication access in the house. He notes the signal blocking was "caused by an operational error by the member on duty" and is "highly regretted".

President Jacob Zuma's SONA was delayed by about 15 minutes as members of Parliament raised a point of order because no mobile signals were available in the house. Opposition members chanted "give back the signal" and insisted the evening could not proceed without free access to frequency, which was subsequently restored.

A probe is under way, and disciplinary steps may be taken, Mahlobo noted. His statement follows government terming the incident as a "technical glitch" until full details are known, and Parliamentary speaker Baleta Mbete's saying the house was aware the State Security Agency was implementing security measures on the back of threats ahead of Zuma's annual address.

Unjustified excuses

ICT expert Adrian Schofield argues the frequencies used by cellphone companies and those used to control flying objects cannot be the same, otherwise there would be many cases of interference. He says another issue is that there is no indication whether the signal above Parliament was blocked.

Schofield also notes, by their nature, drones and planes would be flying above Parliament, not inside it, where reports of jamming emanated from. "There are so many holes in that excuse that it doesn't even bear thinking about."

The South African Civil Aviation Authority, about six months ago, noted no unmanned aircraft system meets with its requirements, and - as a result - are not allowed in SA's air space.

Radio frequency technician Eben Laubsher told Eyewitness News that cellphone jammers are not used to secure no-fly zones. GEW Technologies CEO Karel van der Merwe, who was not available this morning, told the station such devices were developed to neutralise bomb threats. "It's used to jam a signal that would trigger an explosive device."

Lingering nastiness

A more credible reason would have been if security forces had claimed there was a bomb threat, as bombs can be set off via a cellphone, says Schofield. This, he says, would have dissipated the outrage over the incident much faster. The Independent Communications Authority of SA has said the only instance in which jamming is legal is when such devices are used by National Security Cluster Departments.

However, Schofield notes, a bomb threat would have meant Zuma would have gone nowhere near the house.

Schofield says the security services may have been testing such equipment, but in that case, it was a mistake to leave the jammer on. "They've been caught with their pants down."

What is needed is better evidence that the circumstances in Parliament warranted the use of a signal scrambling device, adds Schofield. "Government is trying to minimise the damage to its credibility."

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