Government Secrecy and the Scanner Radio

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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.)

The less expensive scanners monitor only a few channels, and the user must purchase a $5.00 or $10.00 quartz crystal for each specific frequency. Such devices are great for keeping tabs on local fire and police activity, but not for tuning around to see what else is going on. The more expensive, programmable scanners — on the other hand — have free-roving search modes and allow push-button setting of exact channel frequencies, eliminating the need to buy crystals.

Tune in the Power Structure

To make a scanner still more effective as a listening tool, enterprising individuals have come up with frequency directories. These guides help users locate the particular channels they want to monitor. Radio Shack, for example, sells a nine-volume series giving frequencies and call letters of fire, police, sheriff, highway patrol, and emergency units throughout the continental U.S.

But author Tom Kneltel (K2AES) has concentrated his efforts in other areas. One of his three booklets, Air-Scan, is a directory of user stations In the 108-136 MHz aero band: search and rescue frequencies, airport, etc.

Tom’s second guide is the Registry of U.S. Government Radio Frequencies (3rd edition). Because federal agencies are secretive about their frequencies, compiling this list required a lot of detective work. It’s a useful aid to anyone who wants access to the “public” on-air activities of local branches of such agencies as the FBI, the Secret Service, NASA, the FCC, and the military.

However, environmental activists are likely to find Tom’s third publication the most interesting. Titled Energy-Scan, it’s a comprehensive listing (by state) of the frequencies used by nuclear power plants, utilities, other energy companies, and government agencies concerned with environmental matters.

Tom’s publications are available, for $5.95 each postpaid, from CRB Research.

Battling the Big Boys

Not long ago, individual citizens started bringing scanner receivers and lists of frequencies into the secrecy-openness fray. As a result, government agencies and corporations have started to adopt heavier weapons. Among these are “electronic countermeasures” that use new technology and encoding methods to make signals undecipherable on most receivers.

The “scrambling” of voice transmissions is one such technique being introduced on a small scale, and — recently — the FCC proposed that utilities in general and nuclear power facilities in particular be allowed to switch to digital voice transmission to make it more difficult for the general public to intercept these companies’ “sensitive communications.”

In the words of Tom Knettel: “Commercial nuclear power stations have been operating since 1960, paid for and run with your money. Why, now, are their communications too sensitive for you to hear?” Tom has asked a very good question!

The other heavy weapon wielded by groups who want to limit access to their broadcast information is “the law” … usually in the form of convenient interpretations of old statutes and recently passed laws. Section 605 of the Communications Act of 1934, for instance (often quoted by those who want to keep broadcast information secret), deals with the secrecy of communications. It does not prohibit an individual from listening to radio transmissions. Any of them. But, aside from broadcasts intended for the general public, it forbids the listener to divulge their content to anyone else or to use “any information therein contained for his own benefit or the benefit of another not entitled thereto.”

Here in Canada, a law that was originally intended to require that commercial receiving stations be licensed is being inappropriately applied to the totally noncommercial use of scanners by private individuals. Such citizens are required to license their scanners … but soon find that it’s impossible to do so! Why? Because of the Catch-22 requirement that you must, first, get permission from the station you want to monitor! In the U.S., new scanner-related regulations mostly consist of local ordinances that prohibit the use of such devices in vehicles.

So the contest goes on: secrecy, the unveiling of secrecy, and more secrecy … measures, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures … legitimate laws, the use of laws to plug up ears, and the widespread disregard of such laws.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. But my guess is that the listening won’t stop.

Cop Macdonald (VE1BFL)

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