Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Tokyo developed a paint that, when applied to structures, absorbs all radio signals transmitted at frequencies up to 100 GHz, according to a story posted last week on the BBC News Web site. Theoretically, the paint could be used by home Wi-Fi users to keep neighbors from leeching onto their wireless Internet connections, movie theaters to keep cell-phone signals from reaching patrons and by hospitals to keep hackers from intercepting sensitive patient data.

But while the paint might at first glance appear to be a viable alternative to cell-phone jamming technology as a tactic to stop prisoners from conducting criminal activity from their jail cells via contraband cell phones, it likely won’t ever be used for that purpose.

CTIA, which represents the interests of commercial wireless operators, is adamantly opposed to any approach that involves the jamming of signals, because of concerns that such approaches could interfere with legitimate cellular transmissions inside and outside facilities. “Our opposition to jamming was because of the harmful interference of a signal that would be emitted from the jammers,” said Brian Josef, CTIA’s director of regulatory affairs. “We’ve embraced cell-detection and managed access because it doesn’t emit that disruptive signal.”

Even though the signal-absorbing paint doesn’t emit disruptive signals, there is another big problem that likely would preclude it from being used to counteract inmate use of cell phones, Josef said.

“Public safety has been on record expressing concern about first responders arriving at a prison facility and having their communications disrupted,” Josef said. So, to the extent that all signals would go dead within a facility, I’m not going to speak for public safety, but I know that [signal-blocking paint] would ring true with some of the concerns they’ve expressed previously.”

Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for APCO, does speak for public safety, and he agreed with Josef’s assessment. Ors added that it’s not the first time such an idea has been floated.

“About six years ago, there was a company that wanted to install paneling that would stop cell-phone signals in movie theaters,” Ors said. “We took a very strong opposition to that, because it would have blocked public-safety radio signals and stopped people from calling 911.”

Ors added that any signal-blocking paint would have the same issues. “The problem with the paint is that once you put it on, you can’t turn it off,” he said. “Once it starts blocking radio signals, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s probably worse than jammers. With jammers, we can find out where they are and disable them — with paint, it’s permanent.”

Alan Tilles, an attorney with Shulman, Rogers, Gander, Pordy & Ecker, who represents the interests of numerous public-safety entities, thinks debating technology solutions is counterproductive absent a larger policy that clearly defines what needs to be accomplished, well beyond the goal of stopping inmates from using contraband cellular phones. Until such a policy is crafted, the technology debate is nothing more than “a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole,’” he said.

“That paint is no different than building a concrete wall; both will attenuate signals and each will attenuate different types of signals,” Tilles said. “So, the question, at the end of the day, really becomes, what as a nation do we want to do to ensure public-safety communications internal to a wide variety of buildings. Instead of make-shift policies … there needs to be something that’s more universal.

“If you have a policy that ensures that XYZ happens, then you can build technologies that do this, but don’t do that,” Tilles continued. “Instead, it seems like we’re fighting it from the opposite side, by looking at every piece of equipment that comes along and saying, ‘This is good and this is bad.’ The policy needs to come first and the equipment — the good, the bad and the ugly — can come later.”

Along this line, Ors said that the National Institute of Justice has been researching the issue of inmate cell phone use, and lobbying efforts are well underway to secure the funding that would allow the NIJ to continue its research. One of the goals would be to require the Bureau of Prisons to develop a statement of requirements regarding the use of contraband phones by inmates.

“So, do the legwork before they try to decide whether RF jamming is the best choice,” Ors said.