NEW YORK — U.S. transit authorities have been responding nervously to fears that cell phones could be used to trigger bombs in subway and car tunnels, reflecting the emergence of the everyday devices as weapons in the war on terrorism.
New York officials restored phone service to two Manhattan tunnels yesterday, four days after it was halted in response to Thursday’s bomb attacks in London. But a separate authority continued to withhold service on two other tunnels linking the city to New Jersey.
“After the London bombing, we went to orange alert,” said Lou Martinez, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “We felt that disabling the system is the proper decision, and we will continue to evaluate the situation.”
In Washington, Metro Transit Police said they had no plans to shut off cell phone service in the Metrorail system. The issue “wasn’t even brought up” at a transit police briefing yesterday morning, said Candace Smith, a department spokeswoman.
Verizon Wireless, which operates phone service in Metrorail tunnels, said it “would not shut down service anywhere for public safety without specific instructions to do so since we don’t have special intelligence like the law-enforcement agencies do.”
Cell phones do not work in New York’s aged subway system, a complex network of roughly 850 miles of tunnels and track.
Investigators have not determined whether cell phones were the triggering mechanism in the London bombings, as they are suspected to have been in the March 2004 rail bombings in Madrid. But analysts have long been worried about the possibility.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca faced criticism last summer for exploring the use of cell phone jamming equipment at Los Angeles International Airport, Universal Studios and the Rose Bowl to prevent terrorist attacks.
Officials say such jamming devices disrupted an assassination attempt on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.
The Federal Aviation Administration now wants to allow cell phone usage during commercial air flights, but members of Congress predicted the trigger threat would come up during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee oversight hearing Thursday.
Also yesterday, German company Siemens AG announced a deal with Airbus SAS to create the technology needed to allow cell phone calls from its airplanes.
The Federal Communications Commission now allows passengers with wireless desktop computers to access the Internet from aircraft, but no U.S. carriers offer the service.
The decision has raised concerns at the Justice and Homeland Security departments that terrorists could coordinate an attack with other Web users in the air. Last week, both agencies asked for expanded eavesdropping powers to tap in-flight personal computers within 10 minutes of obtaining a court order.
Anti-terror investigators, meanwhile, also are looking at electronic communications for clues to the perpetrators of attacks like the London bombings, raising privacy concerns.
European officials in Brussels yesterday debated how to introduce a law that would require cell phone and Internet companies to store data tracking calls and messages.
The European Commission has suggested drafting a common law requiring telecom companies to hold such data for up to six months. EC attorneys said an omnibus law could balance counter-terrorism measures with the protection of civil liberties.
But Britain, the current president of the European Union, has proposed that the 25 EU nations draft individual laws compelling companies to hold the voluminous data for at least a year. An EC rule could take three years to pass, they say.
British police have asked phone and Internet service providers to retain all e-mails and instant messages that originated on the day of the London attacks.
Amy Doolittle contributed to this report.