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Monitoring and the Law

Jorge Rodriguez


Scanners in the UK


            In May 2002 I flew to England with my step-son who was moving there to begin a one year internship in Landscape Architecture.

            Living in a foreign country can be a completely different experience from visiting one. As we got him settled in, I found myself browsing the many electronics shops crowded in along  Oxford Street and Totenham Court Road in Central London. As a scanner and two-way radio hobbyist for over 20 years I could not help but marvel at all the scanners and monitor radios they had available in the United Kingdom. Models and frequency ranges I’d never even heard of peered out at me under the bright halogen lights, each with its own florescent colored card announcing the model, features and price in both British pounds and Euros; the new currency of the European Union.

            We didn’t buy any radios on that trip, but the next month, when I heard of Paul Wey, I got to questioning if all that monitoring could be legal in the United Kingdom. After all, this is a country that even requires licenses to use a television set. In the UK, if you use or install television-receiving equipment to receive or record television program services, you are required by British law to have a valid TV license.

            In June of that year, the BBC had invited Paul Wey, a British radio hobbyist, to London for an interview on how anyone with a scanner could eavesdrop on security communications. Once in London, the BBC secretly videotaped Paul on the roof of a parking garage showing the reporter what he could do with an ordinary handheld scanner. Paul was shown the next evening talking about how one could listen to the frequencies used by the British Prime Minister's protection team, bodyguards of foreign heads of state visiting London, and police and military communications. A British intelligence officer interviewed for the story told the BBC that he would like to see scanners and their possession made illegal, since in his opinion they can only be used for illegal activities. However, scanners are not illegal in the United Kingdom as long as they are used correctly.

            The rules for listening are published by the Office of Communications – a sort of British equivalent to our Federal Communications Commission. Until last year, the task had fallen to the Office of Radio Authority, but last December 2003 the Office of Radio Authority in the United Kingdom ceased to exist, its duties assumed by the newly formed Office of Communications (Ofcom).

            Ofcom is the new communications sector regulator in the UK and has wide-ranging responsibilities. Among them, Ofcom inherits not only the duties of the Radio Authority, but of four other regulators: the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), the Independent Television Commission (ITC), Oftel, and the Radiocommunications Agency.

            According to Ofcom, scanners and monitoring radios can be legally sold, bought and used in the United Kingdom, without the need to obtain a license, provided they only receive radio services meant for general reception by the public. In the UK such services include Citizens' Band, Amateur, licensed broadcast radio, weather and navigation broadcasts.

            It is only illegal to use scanners to listen to licensed private services such as the police and taxi radio transmissions and other prohibited or private broadcasts not intended for the public. Listening in on such broadcasts is an offence under Section 5(1) (b) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949.

            In order to help the public understand what it can and cannot listen to, Ofcom publishes a Radio Authority information sheet titled RA-169.

            Anyone who intends to listen to radio transmissions should be aware of the following, it warns: A license is not required for a radio receiver as long as it is not capable of transmission according to The Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus (Receivers) (Exemption) Regulations 1989 (SI 1989 No 123). An exception to this is that it is an offense to listen to unlicensed broadcasters (pirate broadcasts) without a license and licenses are not issued for that purpose.

            Although it is not illegal to sell, buy or own a scanning or other receiver in the UK, it must only be used to listen to transmissions meant for general reception – Amateur and Citizens' Band transmissions, licensed broadcast radio and weather and navigation broadcasts. It is an offence to use your scanner to listen to any other radio services unless you are authorized by a designated person to do so.

            So possession of the equipment is allowed so long as it is not used to listen to prohibited communications in the UK.



SIDEBAR - Ofcom’s RA-169]


            There are two offences under UK law for illegal listening:


Under Section 5(1)(b) of the WT Act 1949 it is an offence if a person "otherwise than under the authority of a designated person, either:(i) uses any wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the contents, sender or addressee of any message whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not, of which neither the person using the apparatus nor a person on whose behalf he is acting is an intended recipient;


            This means that it is illegal to listen to anything other than general reception transmissions unless you are either a licensed user of the frequencies in question or have been specifically authorized to do so by a designated person. A designated person means:

            the Secretary of State;

            the Commissioners of Customs and Excise; or

            any other person designated for the purpose by regulations made by the Secretary of State.



(ii) except in the course of legal proceedings or for the purpose of any report thereof, discloses any information as to the contents, sender or addressee of any such message, being information which would not have come to his knowledge but for the use of wireless telegraphy apparatus by him or by another person."


            This means that it is also illegal to tell a third party what you have heard.


With certain exceptions, it is an offence under Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 for a person - "intentionally and without lawful authority to intercept, at any place in the United Kingdom, any communication in the course of its transmission by means of:

            a public postal service; or

            a public telecommunication system."

It is similarly an offence to intercept any communication in the course of its transmission by means of a private telecommunication system.


            This means that it is illegal to listen to telephone calls, including mobile phone networks which are designated as forming part of the public telecommunications system.



Minnesota Scanner Listener Embroiled in Kidnapping Investigation


            Monitoring and the Law is attempting to locate and speak with "Kevin," a Minnesota scanner listener who recently put himself at the center of a kidnapping investigation in which a boy was abducted at gunpoint from St. Joseph, Minnesota, on October 22, 1989.

            Last fall, Kevin admitted to a U.S. Federal Marshal that he had heard the initial dispatch on the abduction case of 11 year old Jacob Wetterling fourteen years ago and drove to the crime scene, arriving before police did. Authorities are now investigating whether tire tracks found at the scene belonged to this scanner listener’s vehicle and not to a possible suspect. Charges have not been filed against the scanner listener and he is not considered a suspect in the disappearance. If you know Kevin, how we can contact him, or more about this story, please contact us. 


Disclaimer: Information in this column is provided for its news and educational content only. Nothing here should be construed as giving specific legal advice. Persons desiring legal advice about their specific situation should consult an attorney licensed in their jurisdiction.