Law Enforcement, The Military and Personal Phones

Officer at crime scene on his mobile device

For some people, their workday means no smartphone. Company rules means phones have to be locked away or simply not brought into the building at all. But not everybody has to do that, of course. Many of us are able to have our phones with us, and will get away with the odd bit of usage during the working day.

Out of all the jobs, in all the different types of industry, there’s no real hard and fast pattern to who can have and use a cell phone at work. But what if we said that law enforcement and the military both allow personal cell phone at work? Would it surprise you? It probably would.

Law Enforcement and Cell Phones

The policy of allowing the use of cell phones and, in some cases, the issuing of them, is very patchy. From state to state, and even county to county, there seems to be no joined up thinking about personal cell phone use. Some police departments actually issue phones to all employees, but put restrictions on their use. Others don’t have any kind of guidelines, and staff are free to use their own phone as they wish.

In fact, only 40% of departments who responded to a recent survey said they had a clear policy. Another 10% said they were considering implementing rules to cover cell phones, but hadn’t finalized details. Even those with a policy in place had wildly differing rules in place. Some forbid use entirely while on duty. Others will fund a few dollars a month on an officer’s contract to cover calls made under work conditions. Many of the rest say that they expect their officer to use them “responsibly”. Some also say that current employment policies already cover infractions with cell phones. Whatever that means.

Phrases such as “excessive use” or “use at inappropriate times” feature frequently, but are clearly subjective. This leaves officers open to a senior officer’s interpretation of what might be excessive or inappropriate. Such vague definitions don’t actually help anybody, and it is a surprise that the text used isn’t clearer with regards to limits and consequences.

Man in uniform, a sailor, on his mobile device

Security Implications

Police radio bands are notoriously easy to monitor. They are basically publicly available transmissions, just outside the frequency range of commercial radio. Even so, extended tuners cost just a few dollars which can easily pick up all police radio communication. A lot of the media use such things, in order to arrive at incidents as quickly as possible.

So why would using cell phones be an issue? They can’t be less secure than police radios, can they? In some ways they are more secure, in others not so much. Cell phones are only as secure as the info you store onto them. Two-way radios are very much “in the moment”. There’s no memory or phone book, or anything else which can affect the next call or the next day. Cell phones do have all those things. More to the point, we will all use them, even in a work-issued phone. If the phone is lost, the risk of exposure is huge.

Dedicated police cell networks are impractical on both a cost and time basis. In reality, there’s probably no good answer, other than police departments probably need to tighten up internal rules. A national policy is very unlikely, as not all crimes are federal, and each department sets its own rules for all manner of things. However, a consensus should be possible.

Lady being sworn in as officer

The Military and Cell Phones

If the loose regulation about cell phones in law enforcement surprised you, buckle up. There are, up to now, no restrictions on cell phone use by most military personnel. Even for those on active duty assignments, however sensitive, carrying cellphones is allowed. They are intended for use as backup communications if radio systems fail, but there are other considerations. There are reports of US soldiers being killed in action, and enemy fighters using captured cellphones to text the soldier’s loved ones with gruesome details of his death. Some even included pictures of the body.

During basic training, there are no limits to soldiers having and using cell phones. After that, it becomes the responsibility of commanding officers as to the possession of cell phones at any given time. The Department of Defence are currently looking at how they can apply a blanket ban on all pentagon employees having any mobile device when entering the complex. The idea is to improve current security levels. Once applied, the DoD have not ruled out a complete ban on all military personnel having cell phones with them on a posting.

The military provide secure satellite and internet connections for soldier to connect with families when on active duty. These, though, are often slow and subject to regular outages. Such facilities will need to improve before implementing any new restrictions.

Otherwise, the rules are few and far between.

US Army Officers in WW1

Should We Be Concerned?

It’s a difficult question to answer. With the police, possibly not, given that individual police officers would need to be specifically targeted in order for the bad guy to get anything useful. The military though, is a much less controlled environment in terms of the taking of sides. It isn’t a case of avoiding capture for the enemy, it’s a case inflicting damage on US forces. Such angles to the conflict mean the risks of data or information falling into the wrong hands in greatly increased.

Balance that against the psychological boost of a soldier who’s life is at risk daily, being able to speak to his family, and the question becomes even more difficult.

Rachel C.
Rachel C.
Rachel is the researcher and blog writer for the Mr Aberthon website. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and eventually made her way to Connecticut in order to become a part of the Mr Aberthon Team. She is passionate about technology and electronics, and nothing gives her more pleasure than discovering insights into the latest gadgets to hit the electronics market.