Calling all car phones: Someone may be listening in

November 12, 1990|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

The voice on the phone is calm, but the pain is evident.

"I had a great summer. But I don't want to be just something on C the side. . . . If I just knew you were ever going to leave her before I'm 90 years old. . . . But you don't even want to tell me B that."

The man's voice was barely audible, and sad.

"It's not that I don't want to. It's not that I haven't thought about I it a million times. But there's money, there's a long-time ; relationship, there's children, there's everything you can think A of."

*

It reads like a soap opera, but the broadcast on a recent evening in Baltimore was not fiction. It was a real-life drama.

The unfaithful husband was talking to the "other woman" from his car phone, and nearly every word was audible to anyone in the area with a police radio scanner capable of tuning into frequencies from 800 to 956 megahertz, the frequencies used by most cellular telephones.

And, as more and more police departments -- like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties -- switch their communications from lower frequencies to the 800 megahertz band, more and more police and fire buffs are shelling out up to $300 for new scanners capable of bringing in the higher frequencies.

They get the cellular wavelengths in the bargain. "A little extra benefit," said Dave Reamer, vice president of PopTronics, an electronics store on Light Street in South Baltimore. Reamer said he sells hundreds of scanners every year.

Congress, in a 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, made it illegal to listen intentionally to conversations on the cellular phone frequencies. And a Justice Department official said violations carry penalties of up to five years in prison and hefty fines.

But prosecution is likely only if you try to use the information for gain, say, in industrial espionage, or in marital disputes, prosecutors say. There's no practical way to stop people from just listening.

"Some scanners come with a little piece of paper telling you it's illegal to listen to certain frequencies," said Reamer.

"It's like putting candy in front of a baby and saying, 'Don't eat it,'" said his father, PopTronics president Jerry Reamer.

Uniden, maker of Bearcat scanners, says it is blocking out the cellular frequencies on its new units, but dealers say the manufacturers don't seem to be silencing all the cellular frequencies.

"We don't tell people to do it, but it's there," said Dave Reamer.

Most conversations caught by scanners during the day involve little more titillating than plumbing dispatchers, salesmen calling in orders, and construction executives checking in with job foremen.

But at night the talk frequently turns to more personal matters, romance, and company gossip.

* nTC

"I'm going to tell you something that I would probably lose my job F if you repeated. Promise me you won't talk about this?"

8 "Yeah."

*

That caller went on to disclose a major upcoming change at his company. In some circumstances, such inside information could a bonanza for competitors or stock traders, or a disaster for others -- including the caller himself -- if overheard by the wrong people.

But many callers like him ramble on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are "on the air."

The moral of the story, Dave Reamer said, is this: "People should realize that any time their signal is going out over the airwaves, people could be listening."

In just a few hours of scanning with a $300 Regency R1600 scanner one recent evening, a listener could have heard a doctor consult on the condition of a hospitalized baby; a lawyer gloat over the acquittal of a client accused of robbery, and one area resident advise another where his car would pass inspection despite a broken windshield.

Usually, scanner buffs can hear only a few minutes of cellular conversations. The transmissions at one frequency are cut off as the car phone moves from one radio "cell" to the next. The radio signal then shifts to the frequency of the next cell, and the scanner can't follow it. But sometimes the caller stays put, and the entire call can be monitored.

Cellular telephones aren't the only devices that rely on radio waves to carry private conversations. Cordless telephones also use radio waves in the 45 to 50 megahertz bands -- with ranges of just a few blocks -- to link the receiver with a base station wired to the phone lines.

They, too, can be intercepted by scanners if they're close enough, Reamer said. And that's legal; cordless phone conversations are exempt from the federal law that makes eavesdropping on cellular phones illegal.

But worst of all, perhaps, are the baby monitors many parents use to listen for their children's cries from remote parts of the house.

Their microphones and small radio transmitters effectively "bug" the house for neighborhood eavesdroppers.

With portable, hand-held scanners, getting close to the source of the relatively weak signals from cordless phones and baby monitors isn't a problem.

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