As anyone with a radio scanner knows, dropping in on conversations on cellular phones isn't hard to do -- you just turn the scanner's dial and listen.
But now a Hunt Valley company has invented the PrivaFone, a patented scrambler for cellular phones that promises to make eavesdropping a lot harder.
The PrivaFone, said inventor Ray Tobias, president of International Test Corp., is the first scrambler for cellular phones that allows anyone with a PrivaFone hookup to use a cellular phone to call anywhere in the world and not have to worry about unwanted listeners.
"PrivaFone gives you the ability to put in a call to any phone in the world, and you don't have to have special equipment," on the receiving end, he said. "Nobody else can do that."
Mr. Tobias said the PrivaFone can be adapted for use on boats, in commercial settings or for use in private homes.
The PrivaFone system has two parts. One unit, about the size of a cigarette pack, attaches to a mobile phone, and a companion unit attaches to a standard phone at home or in the office. A user can call the standard phone directly or route a call through it to a third phone.
The beauty of PrivaFone, said Charles Wistar, executive vice president of Baltimore-based Cellular Services Group Inc., is that the user doesn't have to have the scrambling device attached to both phones -- the sending and receiving end -- to ensure the security of calls. He said no other scrambler on the market has that feature.
"This is for commercial customers, lawyers, doctors, anyone, really, who doesn't want his conversations broadcast," said Mr. Wistar, who is helping to market the PrivaFone.
Eavesdroppers who do succeed in tapping into a PrivaFone conversation won't hear much, Mr. Wistar said. That's because the PrivaFone turns conversations into "pure gibberish," he said.
The PrivaFone is in search of manufacturing partners, Mr. Wistar said. Though no contracts have been signed, he said, several Fortune 100 companies have expressed an interest.
Mr. Wistar said he expects to have the PrivaFone in production by autumn and available in Baltimore shortly thereafter.
The basic PrivaFone is expected to retail for about $600 -- $100 for the mobile unit and $500 for the stationary, companion unit. Models with additional features will cost more.
PrivaFone, which has been in development since 1985, received a patent in November. The patent, said Mr. Tobias, recognizes 22 separate claims.