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Cellular eavesdropping: amateur scanning buffs listen in on Arkansas' 30,000 cellular telephones with scanners costing less than $300.

Cellular Eavesdropping

Amateur Scanning Buffs Listen In On Arkansas' 30,000 Cellular Telephones With Scanners Costing Less Than $300

As head of one of the state's largest real estate firms, John Flake has owned a cellular telephone for two years. The portable telephone's convenience is a must for the hard-working deal maker who, like other real estate agency executives, uses it to boost his daily productivity. Until last week, Flake didn't realize he might be disclosing valuable business secrets talking on his cellular telephone.

"They're supposed to be interference free," says Flake when told the phones could be monitored by off-the-rack radio scanners costing less than $300. "That surprises me a lot."

Flake is not alone among Arkansas' 30,000 cellular phone owners. Since their introduction in the mid-1980s, cellular telephones have quickly become a "must have" for upwardly mobile businessmen, and polls show that few users realize how easily they can be tapped.

"Basically, a cellular phone is a radio," says Radio Shack spokesman Ed Juge, whose company makes both cellular phones and scanners. "(But) with cellular phones there is the perception that it is just like a normal telephone."

One local scanning aficionado in central Arkansas says although it's difficult to track cellular telephone calls, he has been able to listen to and identify many prominent Little Rock business and political leaders talking on cellular phones. Many have discussed explicit details of business deals and shown less-than-flattering sides of their personalities. Beyond business deals, numerous extramarital affairs, doctors discussing patient diagnoses, and drug deals in the making fill the capital city's cellular airwaves.

Listening In

For businessmen who prize keeping business secrets, disclosing particulars of deals on cellular phones is tantamount to broadcasting them to anyone with a scanner prepared to intercept the signal. There are currently four million cellular phones in America and nearly as many scanners nationwide. Many cellular telephone users get lulled into a false sense of security talking into the phones and believe they are just like normal telephones.

And even though it's been illegal since 1986 to listen in on cellular phone calls, the chances of getting caught are practically nil. To date, no one has been prosecuted, says Tom Kneitel, a serious scanning buff.

"The federal law is a toothless tiger," says Kneitel, author of "Tune In On Telephone Calls." Kneitel's book has sold 35,000 copies, and his magazine for scanner freaks, Popular Communications, has a circulation of 100,000. "Cellular telephones are no different than a police radio, taxi radio or pizza radio."

Although intercepting a telephone call on a scanner doesn't give the listener a phone number to identify the user, often important names and other details disclosed in a conversation pinpoint the caller's identity.

Local representatives of Alltel Mobile, one of the state's two cellular telephone companies, admit that numerous factory-ready scanners are capable of monitoring cellular telephone calls.

Alltel Mobile engineering manager Jim Lumeyer says customers often ask if people can listen in on cellular conversations and the company responds that it's a federal offense to eavesdrop. Plus, Lumeyer adds, scanning snoops can only pick up bits and pieces of conversations before the call gets "switched" electronically to another transmitting unit.

But Kneitel says experienced listeners can track calls with some extra effort, and calls made from slow-moving or parked vehicles would remain on one channel the entire conversation.

"Very few people with phones understand how easy it is to listen in," Kneitel says.

Cellular calls are bounced to the nearest cell site tower where they are routed automatically by a switching computer. The switching office routes the call to its destination via conventional land lines or microwave transmission. The other end of the conversation is returned to the cellular telephone by the tower. A scanner user can hear both sides of the conversation and, importantly, hear the normal telephone user's call, as well.

The Privacy Question

Car phones have been around since the 1940s, but earlier models utilized two-way radio technology and privacy was never implied. Cellular telephones were used in Scandinavia in the late 1970s, gradually entering the U.S. in the early 1980s.

Operating in the 800 megahertz transmission band, cellular telephones were at first immune to scanner eavesdropping because most scanners didn't sweep the previously unused frequency range. But promptly, Radio Shack, AR, Icom and Bearcat manufactured scanners capable of monitoring cellular calls and the cellular lobby was up in arms.

In 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed, making it a federal law to listen in on cellular telephone calls. But, importantly, it didn't make it illegal to manufacture or own scanners capable of monitoring those frequency ranges.

Radio Shack voluntarily changed [Cannot read one line] in cellular telephone calls. But the devices can be altered with a simple fingernail file and instructions for modifying the scanners are easy to come by.

Only federal prosecutors can enforce the law and FBI spokesmen have admitted staking out amateur scanning buffs is a low priority.

"You'd be surprised that some of the biggest people that do (listen) are little old ladies and guys with nothing to do," says Alltel Mobile's John Purcell. "They listen to everything."

Digital Lockout

Alltel representatives don't like the situation, and Purcell says new, soon-to-be-introduced digital cellular telephones will make listening impossible. But Kneitel says this development is years away.

"You've got to phase it in," Kneitel says. "You'd have to buy a new phone (to replace the old one). Digital phones are not even designed and approved yet."

Kneitel estimates that only 10 percent of cellular telephones will be converted in any given year and the first digital phones won't hit the market for at least two years.

Industry critics say cellular companies want to play down the easy accessibility of the conversations to scanners because of fears of depressing sales. Most polls show users are unaware of the situation. A 1987 poll by the California Public Utilities Commission in 1987 found 60 percent of the users were unaware their conversations could be intercepted.

Last spring, Pacific Bell, a large cellular provider in California, mailed a special notice to all users describing the potential for listening in by scanners. USA TODAY had a cover story on scanners April 20, 1990, but the news still hasn't hit home for the average user.

Kneitel says he did a radio talk show in New York state recently in which cellular phone users called with amazed responses. "Most of the people who call in on these shows are usually shocked, horrified," he says. "They didn't know anything about it."

And, apparently, judging by some conversations overheard on Little Rock cellular airwaves, many local readers have either forgotten, or ignore, the knowledge that outsiders may be listening in.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Walker, Wythe Jr.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 24, 1990
Words:1125
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