Sensors and Journalism

Makers, Journalists and the Federal Communications Commission: Why the Laws Exist

By Mike Hord For journalists who are considering building their own sensors the laws governing electronic devices may seem restrictive and somewhat counterintuitive. However, solid principles underpin the rules, even if the fast pace of change in modern hardware development appears to be stressing the current regulatory regime. One category of sensor-based journalism projects runs the greatest risk of breaking these laws: projects that incorporate custom-built electronics, especially if they’re being deployed en masse. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stewardship over the electromagnetic spectrum within the United States. The FCC regulates all devices that emit any kind of radio signal either intentionally or unintentionally, and issues licenses to people or commercial entities that market or operate those devices. In some cases, where the stakes are relatively low, laws simply require that devices or services using radio frequencies not interfere with higher priority systems. To give a common and probably familiar example, a device that broadcasts music from an iPod to a car’s FM radio can acceptably interfere with radio reception up to a couple of car lengths away; this is not generally considered an issue. However, if that

device were to interfere with an emergency band radio used by a fire department, this would constitute a serious problem and the manufacturer (if not the user) would likely be subject to significant criminal liability. The FCC also allocates the use of radio spectrum to commercial entities, such as television and radio stations, and cellular phone service providers. The commission takes interference with licensed uses of the spectrum, unintentionally or intentionally, very seriously and may even investigate and bring criminal charges. Fortunately, the design of most commercially available devices makes it very hard to accidentally interfere with licensed operations. The FCC operates under rules that have not been revised since 1989. They were written long before the DIY electronics revolution of the last ten years. But every day, companies like my employer, SparkFun Electronics, make it easier for individuals to produce small quantities of increasingly complex devices. The complexity of these devices routinely rivals that of the consumer products for which the FCC rules were originally composed. This new state of affairs has produced some ambiguities in interpreting current FCC wording. For instance, authorization from the FCC is required prior to marketing or importing a device for sale. Meanwhile, a small number of devices may be made for personal use. But we can easily imagine journalists’ work falling somewhere in between: What about a newsroom making a small number of custom sensors and distributing them for free? Or a for-profit consulting business that produces such sensors for a reporting project? So, why this lack of movement? The rules under which the FCC operates are laid out by an act of Congress; thus, an act of Congress would be required to change them. There is some leeway in how the rules are interpreted, however, and the FCC periodically releases white papers detailing its interpretations of key points within certain rules.1can be found by examining some of its past enforcement actions.2technologists will continue to come up with new scenarios that aren’t even covered by the guidance papers, let alone legislation from 1989. This section will help readers identify the gray areas, and navigate a path through. Types of Devices Devices can be categorized as one of two types: intentional radiators or unintentional radiators.3do not specifically use radio waves to transmit any information. These are items like televisions, DVD players, and radio receivers. In general, these devices must be tested before going to market to ensure that they will not interfere with other devices. (There are limits to the amount of radio waves they are allowed to emit during use.) Although there is a legal requirement that these devices be tested, they do not have to be registered or reported to the FCC before they can be marketed.4use radio waves for information transfer. This includes those like remote controlled toys, cellular telephones, Bluetooth headsets, and any device using a wireless Internet connection. Intentional radiators can be further subdivided into the band, or primary frequency range within which they operate. Some bands require that those using devices in a specific range be licensed or trained. For example, maritime radio bands are restricted for use by persons communicating to or from ships and boats. Other bands, particularly the so-called industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) ones, are intentionally allowed to be “dirty”— meaning devices operating in them, which include essentially all consumeruse goods, are expected to comply with certain rules about signal strength but may interfere with one another. Intentional radiators must be tested and registered with the FCC prior to marketing.5Those marketed in the United States must also have an FCCissued ID code to be legal; failure to obtain or display this ID is increasingly common among inexpensive goods imported from overseas. Restrictions on Homemade Devices The FCC offers an exception to its rules about device testing to allow for private construction of up to five devices not intended for market sale.6private citizen from complying with other rules; just because a cellular phone jammer is homemade doesn’t make it legal, and failure to exercise due diligence in the design and implementation of a device that causes unacceptable interference can result in legal penalties. Personal Meets Professional There exists a swelling space between commercial and private gadgetry, wherein a person could, on contract, create devices for a commercial entity to use. It’s practically possible, for instance, to create a network of distributed sensors reporting data over a cellular phone network for several hundred dollars or less. Clearly, devices created under such circumstances would not be marketed, as they are intended for the use of a single client. However, they can’t truly be defined as for personal use either. The FCC’s rules do not currently seem to exert guidance in this area. The current laws date back to a time when

transistor radio kits were state of the art;7devices of this complexity certainly could not be readily created outside of commercial enterprises. Until the FCC updates its rules, releases some guidance or interpretation on the matter, or investigates some relevant cases, we can assume that such non-marketed devices are legal, so long as they are constructed and operated with due diligence and good engineering practice to avoid any interference with other users of the spectrum. Another consideration falls within the realm of distributing electronic devices to the audience of a commercial entity. This is more clear-cut—such devices must be considered as “on the market” and dealt with appropriately just as any other commercial device. If the device is provided in kit form, however, the FCC has issued guidance to suggest that it need not be subjected to the same sort of scrutiny as a finished product,8end user/ assembler of the kit is expected to have some expertise in the matter. Kitting is only loosely defined by the FCC;9the agency has, however, specifically indicated that the mere act of installing circuit boards into an enclosure is not technically rigorous enough to grant exemption as a kit.10example, a distributed sensing project where a media organization invites readers to use a sensor and contribute data to a larger project. If the sensor package is fully assembled and ready to use, it would be subject to the same rules as any other commercial product. If it were provided as a kit, which requires some skill (even basic soldering) to assemble, that requirement would not apply.

Dissemination of Information Thus far, the freedom to distribute designs or data that can be used to construct illegal devices has not been restricted by the FCC. Good examples of this are cellular phone jammers; designs for such devices exist openly on the Internet and can be downloaded and replicated easily.11use of such devices is, of course, still treated as a crime. Other information is even less regulated. Books and magazines, such as Forrest Mims’ excellent series Engineer’s Notebooks and the magazine Nuts and Volts, have been providing information about circuit design and construction for decades. There is an entire industry, dubbed “open source hardware,” which exists solely to provide instruction and supplies to those wishing to dabble in electronic design. Journalists, therefore, should consider dissemination of design information and details to be completely acceptable, and indeed laudable. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of anyone attempting to duplicate the device to ensure that they do not violate the FCC rules. Guidelines for Ethical and Legal Conduct Given that the rules do not explicitly forbid the creation of sensors or instruments as tools of journalism, we must consider what sort of guidelines we might follow to ethically and legally employ these devices.

  • First, do no harm. Under no circumstances should a device that intentionally interferes with legitimate uses of the radio spectrum be employed. This should rule out purpose-built devices, such as cellular or GPS signal jammers; misuse of standard devices (radio transmitters tuned to a frequency and left in transmit mode indefinitely); or abusive modification of legal devices (small FM or AM transmitters with signal boosters).

  • Seek knowledgeable advice. More than enough information exists in the marketplace to allow even relatively unskilled people to create devices that might fall afoul of various rules. When using electronics that actively transmit, seek advice from someone with reasonable expertise on the matter.

  • Avoid illegally marketed electronics.12 are a surprising number of them in the marketplace these days, as unscrupulous foreign manufacturers sell to uninformed domestic suppliers. Of particular concern are remote video surveillance systems; the FCC has already investigated (and fined) importers and users of these devices. Remember, all devices that transmit wirelessly must display an FCC-ID number in order to be marketed legally in the United States.

  • Use FCC-certified radio modules.13 offers manufacturers the option to certify radio modules. This is meant to make it easier for a system assembler (say, a laptop computer maker) to integrate wireless functionality. These modules are pretested to ensure that they won’t interfere with legitimate spectrum users. By implementing them in a project, the odds of causing interference reduce dramatically. Modules for Bluetooth, WiFi, and cellular networks can all be purchased.

  • If challenged, stop using the devices immediately. In the unlikely event that an FCC enforcement agent questions your device, stop using it right away. The current state of affairs is such that an FCC enforcement agent is likely to become involved only in cases of serious infraction, where interference with licensed use of the radio spectrum is repeated and extremely noticeable.

The FCC Does Not Have Worldwide Jurisdiction It should be noted that this section pertains only to activity within the United States; other countries have different rules and laws. While Canada and the EU have relatively similar laws to those in the United States, Japan has somewhat more stringent guidelines. It is advisable to seek local advice before attempting to use any custom fabricated or non-commercial electronics in other countries.