UWB: Lawsuit Fodder?

Wireless Center Editor Guy Kewney predicts inroads for ultrawideband technology will spark new health phobias-and possibly new lawsuits.

The poor, you will always have with you. So, too, the cranks, the nutters, the people who write to you in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS with LOTS of EMPHASIS!!!!—and amongst them, come the people who have discovered something called "microwave radiation."

They are going to have a field day with ultrawideband, the fate of which is being decided this week in Singapore. No doubt, when the first UWB devices start appearing late next year, the screams of the brigade with the banners saying: "My phone gave me cancer of the ear!" will be drowned by the moans of those proclaiming, "I cant have children because of UWB RADIATION!!"

In the real world, the culture of litigation may render most of these objections moot. It takes very few successful lawsuits to persuade people that they simply cant permit certain behaviours for fear of being sued. "My neighbor installed a device with wide bandwidth RADIATION in his home next door, and theres nothing I can do to shield myself from it, and Ive got this disease." Even if you are confident of your ability to defend the case, can you afford the costs?


Tuned into radio technology? Take an in-depth look at Wal-Marts plans for RFID.

In the corporate environment, however, things may well be more rational.

If wireless were a tool for sexual harassment, then HR departments would, naturally, be up in arms. Already, personnel management consultants are advising people to ban cell phones with cameras from the workplace.

The logic goes (something) like this: There are already regulations prohibiting the use of cameras at work. Sometimes this is because there are trade secrets at risk, but sometimes, it is because men follow women around and wait till they climb a ladder in a skirt. A phone with a camera built in, ostensibly a phone, is nonetheless a camera capable of taking embarrassing photographs and transmitting them to giggling colleagues with multimedia messaging.

One day, of course, it may be possible to buy a camera phone that doesnt work as a camera in specific sensitive areas. Iceberg Systems is trying to sell the idea to the phone makers. The idea is simple enough; the phone is built with an internal switch internally that toggles the imaging software on or off. The switch is activated by a special wireless signal. Stick a transmitter into the room where photography is prohibited, and the phone will work purely as a phone.

Even if Nokia and Ericsson and the rest go for this notion, I cant see it suppressing the ingenuity of amateur photographers, especially since all the new smart phones have the ability to switch the wireless side off—for airline use, mostly—and leave just a pocket computer operating.

But make the employers subject to harassment cases, and the ban on using camera cell phones will be in place quickly enough to make Icebergs system redundant.

Not so the wireless signals themselves, however—weve been there.

As a result of the earlier panics over "magnetic radiation" from display monitors, we know that some countries did indeed legislate quite strict standards for leaking interference. We also have the Swedish display industry to thank for quite a lot of well-organized research into what CRTs can do to human tissue (mostly, it discovered that ordinary skin is sensitive to flickering light) From that, theres grown a pretty substantial body of research about what other electromagnetic radiation can do to skin and muscle and bone.

The one thing we dont have, of course, is long-term epidemiological research. We know what radiation at this or that frequency does to neural tissue or to flesh; but we dont know what the long-term effects are, or even if there are any. And, given the amount of really high-power radar at airports, and the number of people who have worked in those environments daily for decades, its understandable that many professionals dont expect a real scandal.

But that wont stop the "aluminum-foil head-shield" sellers. It wont stop people selling crystals that produce an "equal and opposite resonance"to enable the body to "neutralize" this "dangerous radiation."

Humans, it seems, are very bad at assessing risk. We dont have an inbuilt understanding of statistics or probability law; we dont have a good grasp of the difference between "unacceptably high stakes" and "unacceptably poor odds" and so you will see people angrily threatening legal retribution against cell phone operators as they stroll along in the sunshine.

I dont expect this to slow the uptake of wireless technology in the corporate workplace, because it is long-established in the Dilbert Creed that—as long as its not sexual harassment—corporate employers can play with their workers like cats play with mice. Weve had wireless in the office long enough now that such a suit would seem unlikely to succeed, even if there were some evidence of a health hazard.

And now that Ive written this piece, I suppose Id better change my e-mail, or expect a flood of capital letters and exclamation marks in my inbox... especially after the Singapore vote.

Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week, and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.