'Bloodhound' device sniffs out contraband cell phones in prisons

A mobile cell phone detector from Berkeley Varitronics packs what had been a fixed radio detection system into a two-pound handheld package. It wouldn't be fashionable enough for a Hollywood James Bond, but the BV Bloodhound, like its name, isn't intended for fashionable settings.

The detector is intended for use in prisons and other high-security sites that have to ban wireless communications. The BV Bloodhound is the picture of industrial simplicity: a beige block, the lower two-thirds compressed to fill your palm, a stubby antenna, a simple screen that evokes early arcade video games, and half-dozen buttons.

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Contraband cell phones are a growing threat in corrections, illustrated in October 2008 when a death-row inmate used one to threaten the life of Texas State Sen. John Whitmire. The phone was smuggled in by a bribed guard, and the inmate's mother paid for cell minutes.

Illicit cell phones are being used by prisoners to continue a wide range of criminal activities, says Scott Schober, president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics, a Metuchen, N.J., vendor of wireless test products. Federal law currently forbids cell phone jamming, though a proposed congressional bill would let states use it in prisons. Prisons resort to physical searches and even phone-sniffing dogs, or could opt for expensive wireline systems for cellular detection, according to Schober.

The battery-powered Bloodhound is designed to change all that. Its internal wideband detectors pick up cellular signals in PCS, GSM and CDMA bands, even if the cell phone is only turned on but not in use. Signal strength changes can be seen onscreen or heard by a beep: both visual and aural alerts fluctuate the closer you get to the cell phone. It has an earphone to keep it more stealthy.

Sweep it around to pick up signals with the omni-directional antenna, then snap in a more precise directional antenna to track down the phone's location. At that point, the user can switch on a red laser beam, like a targeting laser, "aimed" by the directional antenna. As it nears the target radio, the beam starts to pulse, quickening as it gets closer.

It's designed to be simple to use: just hit the power button and it starts scanning. There are no configurations to set or onscreen menus to play with.

It can run 4 to 5 hours on its battery, and uses fast-charge circuitry to quickly refresh.

The Bloodhound is in field trials this month, and is scheduled to be generally available in January, for less than $2,000.

This story, "'Bloodhound' device sniffs out contraband cell phones in prisons," was originally published at NetworkWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in wireless at Network World.

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