Radio Communication Interception

As the term implies, radio communication interception is the capture of radio signals by a scanning device for the purpose of eavesdropping on a voice call or learning the contents of data messages. When it comes to the interception of radio communications, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority to interpret Section 705 of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. Section 605, which deals with “Unauthorized Publication of Communications.”

Although the act of intercepting radio communications may violate other federal or state statutes, this provision generally does not prohibit the mere interception of radio communications. For example, if someone happens to overhear a conversation on a neighbor’s cordless telephone, this is not a violation of the Communications Act. Similarly, if someone listens to radio transmissions on a scanner, such as emergency service reports, this is not a violation of Section 705.

A violation of Section 705 would occur, however, if a person were to divulge or publish what he or she hears or use it for his or her own or someone else’s benefit. An example of using an intercepted call for a beneficial use in violation of Section 705 would be someone listening to accident reports on a police channel and then driving or sending one of his or her own tow trucks to the reported accident scene in order to obtain business.

The Communications Act does allow for the divulgence of certain types of radio transmissions. The statute specifies that there are no restrictions on the divulgence or use of radio communications that have been transmitted for the use of the general public, such as transmissions of a local radio or television broadcast station. Likewise, there are no restrictions on divulging or using radio transmissions originating from ships, aircraft, vehicles, or persons in distress.

Transmissions by amateur radio or citizens’ band radio operators are also exempt from interception restrictions. In addition, courts have held that the act of viewing a transmission (such as a pay television signal) that the viewer was not authorized to receive is a “publication” violating Section 705. This section also has special provisions governing the interception of satellite television programming transmitted to cable operators.

The section prohibits the interception of satellite cable programming for private home viewing whether the programming is scrambled or not scrambled but is sold through a marketing system. In these circumstances, authorization must be obtained from the programming provider to legally intercept the transmission. The act also contains provisions that affect the manufacture of equipment used for listening or receiving radio transmissions, such as scanners.

Section 302(d) of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. Section 302(d), prohibits the FCC from authorizing scanning equipment that is capable of receiving transmissions in the frequencies allocated to domestic cellular services, that is capable of readily being altered by the user to intercept cellular communications, or that may be equipped with decoders that convert digital transmissions to analog voice audio.

And since April 26, 1994 (47 CFR 15.121), such receivers may not be manufactured in the United States or imported for use in the United States. FCC regulations also prohibit the sale or lease of such scanning equipment (47 CFR 2.803).

Government Interception

While intercepting radio communications for beneficial purposes is illegal in the United States, the federal government systematically engages in such monitoring for the purpose of learning industrial secrets. Under a program known as “Echelon,” a satellite interception system, private and commercial communications are monitored around the world.

The program is run by five nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. France and Russia are also known to have systems of their own. Business is often subject to surveillance involving economic data, such as details of developments in individual sectors of the economy, developments in commodity markets, or compliance with economic embargoes.

Although this is ostensibly the purpose behind Echelon, some countries claim that it is also used for industrial espionage; specifically for spying on foreign businesses with the aim of securing a competitive advantage for firms in the home country. While it is often maintained that Echelon has been used in this way, no such case has been substantiated.

The FCC receives many inquiries regarding the interception and recording of telephone conversations. To the extent that these conversations are radio transmissions, there would be no violation of Section 705 if no divulgence or beneficial use of the conversation takes place. Again, however, the mere interception of some telephone-related radio transmissions—whether cellular, cordless, or landline conversations—may constitute a criminal violation of other federal or state statutes.