19 December 2014

The Cell Phone as Murder Weapon

by Dixon Hill

Melodie Campbell's post on December 6th gave me the idea for this post, so if you don't like it complain to her.  Because it's her fault!  (Just kidding of course.)

Surely everyone has read about cell phones being used to detonate improvised explosives, but I'm not going to address that issue in this post.  Clearly, too many bad guys already know how to set up such triggers, and -- though I think I have a pretty good idea how to rig one up -- I am not going to propagate such knowledge among more of them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There is an aspect about cell phones, however, that some mystery writers may be unaware of, which could potentially render them highly useful as items involved in fictional extortion plots, arson plots, and even potential murder plots.

I don't feel I'm letting anything out of the bag by writing this, because:

  1. This aspect is widely reported on the internet, complete with accompanying photos.
  2. Recent television newscasts have covered this aspect, and its associated potential for downing aircraft.  
  3. I have certainly never been trained in using a cell phone as an explosive device, as this aspect did not exist -- or, at least, was not nearly as wide-spread -- during my military career.
  4. Having a certain rudimentary knowledge that something is possible, is a far cry (imho) from having the technical expertise and equipment to successfully execute that thing.

The aspect of cell phones that I'm addressing is:  Exploding Batteries.

Now, you may have just scoffed, and asked, "How much damage could one little battery do?"
Below is a photo of a house reportedly gutted by the fire an exploding cell phone battery started:

Is there any question in your mind, now, that a cell phone battery could figure prominently in the plot of a mystery concerning arson?

These two photos show folks who have survived phone battery explosions or fires:

I recall being told of a case, in which terrorists set up a booby trap, which fired a small explosive device mounted behind the mirror on a car's sun visor.  The daughter of a man, whom the terrorists were trying to influence, owned the car and often used the flip-down mirror (which had lights on either side, that came on when it was flipped open) to do her makeup.  The idea behind the attack, was not to kill the daughter, but to maim her.  To mar her face.

This is a horrible thing to do to someone, but since we write about horrible people perpetrating crimes, consider:  Imagine how organized crime members might use a cell battery to carry out their threat to maim family members of someone they were trying to extort into doing something illegal.

Sound like part of a plot?

What if the explosion that hurt the man's ear, in the photo above, were amped-up to be more powerful?  The target gets a call, and when he answer it -- WHAM!  Of course, the device would probably be more effective if the battery detonated five to ten seconds after the target answered, increasing the likelihood that the phone was tucked tight to the target's head (Charge-to-target contact -- remember?).  Now, we could be talking about fictional murder.

To watch a BBC clip concerning exploding cell batteries (along with some interesting demonstrations) CLICK HERE

CLICK HERE to read about ways to prevent cell phone batteries from exploding.  The idea here is: Learning what prevents them from exploding, might help you get started, when it comes to plotting techniques that your fictional character can use to make his/her targeted cell phone battery explode, wreaking fictional havoc upon the opposition.

CLICK HERE for Times of India information about "call bombing" and how this might help a cell phone to cause damage.  Scroll down to "How and why do mobile phone blasts happen?" for the requisite information.

Now: Let's be frank.  If you've read through some of the links above, then you know that most phones and batteries are well designed and manufactured, and very seldom explode.  Further, even if a battery were to explode, I think it would be quite difficult to rig up a system that would make it explode at a specific time -- which is an important consideration when working with explosive or assassination devices.  After all, if the thing blows up when it's nowhere near the targeted individual or structure, the blast will not accomplish the desired results.

On the other hand, we're writing fiction here.  So . . . maybe -- using the links above, and possibly others -- you might figure out a way to sell such an exciting plot, in a way that's convincing to readers.  If so, I hope you "Have at it!"

See you in two weeks,


Leigh Lundin said...

Intriguing post, Dixon. Some years back, two different generations of Sony laptop batteries (Sony also supplied Apple) were notorious for bursting into flames.

I’m dubious about the ‘call-bombing’ as described in the ToI. International calls shouldn’t make any difference at all nor should any such self-destruct be built into phones.

That said, I imagine there are ways to exacerbate exploding phones and tablets. For example, I notice the Waze GPS application dramatically heats up my Android and likewise heats the phone of my friend Thrush. It sucks so much power that more often than not I leave it plugged into the cigarette lighter charger, which introduces additional heat. Turn on wifi and bluetooth and all of the possible sensors, load up computational intensive apps like games, and you’ll have an overheated phone, especially in locations like FL, TX, AZ, NM, and Mexico.

Overheating might reach temperatures sufficient to melt the solder, which is less than you might think. Hypothetically, a couple of things might happen such as weakening solder joints, which might cause additional overheating, or, sufficiently melting solder that might reflow and short-circuit the mechanism, possibly sending temperatures soaring.

These are somewhat iffy and let’s say you wanted a more surefire method without tampering with battery or board internals. It occurs to me that an unpleasant person might paint the battery and battery cavity with certain chemicals found in xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxx. Then, as the machine starts to heat, the chemicals react and ignite, then poof!

Fran Rizer said...

Good morning, Dixon. Interesting post.

Eve Fisher said...

Interesting post, Dixon - I wonder what would happen if the overheated battery in a cellphone met another type of battery on the verge of a meltdown, say, a hearing aid battery? (Unlikely, but we're writing fiction, right?)

Melodie Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melodie Campbell said...

crap! I used the brackets for html by mistake and it wiped out my comment! starting over...

"Blame it on Melodie..." Oh yeah. Blame it on Canada. And not I'm hiding behind my big black rotary phone now.

Cool post though. Actually, hot post. Extremely hot. I'll go quietly now (at least until tomorrow, when I'm up.)

Anonymous said...

I've ridden in busses and trains where I wanted to blow up a few phones.

dkw said...

Oh, great. Now I really want to go back to that old black rotary phone. Okay, maybe the touchtone, but still.

Dixon Hill said...

I apologize that this comment got up so late, but if you read to the end, you’ll find out why.

Leigh, your comments speak volumes, particularly in the manner in which you believe phone or tablet ignition could be “exacerbated.” I had some thoughts, myself, along those lines—specifically concerning embedding certain substances on and around the battery/battery compartment—but was unaware of the problem you mentioned vis-à-vis Sony laptop batteries. I wonder if it might be possible for a person to intentionally get hold of one, in order to use it toward nefarious ends. Conversely, perhaps the exploding battery might point to a ring of criminals selling old laptop/phone batteries, which were reported as “destroyed due to defect,” as if they were new? Sounds like a plot to me, buddy!

As for the ToI story, I thought it useful, because I was considering coming up with a way to rig the battery for short circuit when receiving calls. You may know if that's possible, or how to do it, but I'm afraid I'm in the dark here.

Fran, I’m glad you found this interesting. It was actually your comment, on Melodie’s post, that awakened me to such thoughts. I had seen and read news reports, but had not considered figuring them into mystery plots until then.

Eve, I think your hearing aid battery idea is brilliant. And your attitude of “Unlikely, but we're writing fiction, right?” is probably just what’s needed to carry off such a plot line imho.

Melodie, thanks for being the scape goat, as we all know that Canadians are notoriously blood-thirsty, of course. LOL And thanks for being such a good sport.

Also: be glad you’ve got a big black rotary phone; I’ve only been able to go online intermittently for the past week or so, and my cable phone (provided by COX Cable) has been out, due to a general cable interruption, for over 24 hours now.

This interruption evidently knocked my home equipment off-line, so that it still won’t work, though the problem has supposedly been fixed. Unfortunately, they won’t have a repair person out to fix my home units until Saturday afternoon. So, we’ve got no internet, land-line phone or T.V. at the moment.

In fact, I’m writing this on my laptop, which is piggy-backing (with permission) on the wi-fi used by my apartment office’s staff. Unfortunately, the connection I managed to make there was too weak to permit me to post on my blogging day. I had to wait for the repair guy to come out and “fix” our problem (Which meant, actually, just flipping a switch, because COX had accidentally turned off OUR cable, when trying to turn off the cable for the folks who moved out of the apartment downstairs last week!) to post this comment.

So, now, after three days, cable is finally back on, and it’s working well enough that my online connection is no longer (apparently, and so-far) intermittent, as it has been for about a week or so. Hopefully, none of my other neighbors will move out any time soon!

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