Government Secrecy and the Scanner Radio

The ability of the scanner radio to pierce government secrecy caused government agencies and public service firms great consternation in the early 1980s.

| March/April 1981

copthorne macdonald - 1981

Copthorne Macdonald, a ham radio enthusiast and the inventor of slow-scan television, notes that authority figures acted quickly to restore government secrecy when scanner radios gave citizens a way of seeing through it.


Such lofty phrases as "open government" and "freedom of information" are commonly heard, but the truth behind the language is often something else. In fact, government secrecy is the norm. Many agencies and "public service" firms (such as utility companies) frequently talk openness while strictly limiting our view of their internal workings. Acting as "the authorities," such organizations have been known to heavy-handedly control the information spigot and quickly bung up any leaks.

Sadly, most of us seem to think that the situation can't be changed, but a few folks just won't give up quite that easily. One current conflict — in which the "little guys" involved aren't about to quit — concerns a special variety of receiver called a scanner radio.

"The Better to Hear You With, My Dear"

As radio communication became commonplace, a great many government and quasi-government groups began conducting portions of their business over the air. In the process, certain "inside" information moved "outside." Initially, the potential leaks didn't cause the organizations much concern, because the frequencies used were not widely known, and few people owned receivers capable of picking up VHF and UHF radio signals.

Then the scanner appeared, a radio that not only covers the specific portion of the frequency spectrum that had been used for "confidential" broadcasts, but actually continues to search the band automatically and tirelessly until it discovers some communication in progress. The radio then stops at that signal, turns up Its own volume, and lets the user hear what's said. When the channel being monitored eventually goes silent, the scanning operation immediately resumes.

And, once we were equipped with this convenient tool, "we the people" did start listening ... and information managers began to get upset.

Scanners come in tabletop, mobile, and hand-held varieties and carry names like Regency, Realistic, and Bearcat. Most cover VHF frequencies in the 30-50 and 138-164 ranges, while some also receive a portion of the UHF spectrum, 410-511 MHz being typical. (Unlike HF shortwave, which can support round-the-world communication, scanners normally receive only line-of-sight frequencies whose transmission distances are limited, by the curvature of the earth, to 50 miles or so.)

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