[this page is a mirror of this original].

Doing Freedom masthead

Radio Scanners: Liberty's Ears

The Owl

If firearms are liberty's teeth, and cryptography is liberty's voice, then radio scanners must surely be liberty's ears.

Although the internet is a fine strategic way of discerning global trends and information, a radio scanner can provide tactical or battlefield intelligence unavailable from any other source. In almost all cases it even can even scoop your local paper's coverage of events. Truth be known, newspeople use scanners extensively to develop leads. For those liberty activists on the run or under siege, a scanner can literally save their butts!

What follows is a very quick and easy introductory guide to eavesdropping on radio communications. Despite its rudimentary nature it does provide enough technical info to get a person well on their way to being a professional radio snoop. I have tried to keep the borax to a minimum. If this essay sparks your interest in scanning you will soon be learning all the poindexterish tech stuff (like calculating band or even frequency using the inverse relation between frequency and antenna length) on your own. One of the all-round best Web sites for all things scanner and short wave is the Grove Enterprises site. It has catalogs, product reviews, articles, frequency lists, a great reference library, and links to other sites. For more information, an online search for the phrase "radio scanner" will provide lots of sites.

What can be heard on a radio scanner? Technically speaking, anything that uses an antenna can be listened in on. Some transmissions take fancier (expensive) equipment, but for the most part everything--especially voice radio transmissions--are easily capturable. Even encrypted and frequency shifted transmissions (multiplexed or trunked transmissions) can be grokked by either slaving a scanner to a PC using readily available programs and interfaces, or by utilizing the features included on some scanners.

Scanners gather signals from the radio spectrum devoted to short and medium range communications. This equates to local, regional and statewide communications. Envision any governmental, private, or corporate entity that communicates via radio and you can listen in on them. The term scanner refers to the receiver's ability to search or "hop" from one frequency to another within a certain range in search of activity. Scanners cannot transmit. They can only receive.

If you are looking to gather signals transmitted over long (intercontinental/worldwide) distances you will require a Short Wave Radio receiver. SWR listening is an area of devotion unto itself. I mention it here only to denote its existence and difference from the subject matter being discussed. (Some people say the internet has made SWR obsolete. In some ways they are right. However, there are still many SWR Sigint [Signal Intelligence] coups to be had.)

Equipment considerations

What do you need to get started in scanning? Obviously, you will need a receiver. These vary in price based on band coverage, scanning/memory features and whether or not they are portable or desktop models. Sensitivity, ruggedness and other factors of quality are also a factor but are not discussed here as they are generally matters of common sense. Note: The days of needing to buy expensive crystals for each and every frequency you want to monitor are gone.

Before shopping you will first want to check the bandplan in your area. You can get it from your local Radio Shack. General, easy-to-understand information about bandplan is available online at howstuffworks.com. This is a chart showing how frequencies are allotted in your area, or who is talking where on the radio spectrum. Generally speaking, all the police will be in one area (band) of the spectrum, the taxis in another, airplanes in another, gas companies in yet another, etc. Find the agencies you want to monitor and then make sure you buy a scanner that covers their frequencies. There are tricks you can use to cover frequencies outside your scanner’s listed capabilities (harmonics) but they are beyond the scope of this short essay.

Wider band coverage costs more money. For reasons I find inexplicable, no two scanner models cover the same range of frequencies. Scanners are marketed with a strange mixture between frequency coverage and scanning features. One model will cover the frequencies you want, but not have the features you desire. Others will have fantastic scanning ability but not the bands you want. I suggest buying a scanner with a minimum memory ability to scan 100 frequencies.

Units vary in price from $100 up to king's ransoms. I started out with a cheapo desktop unit purchased secondhand. By dedicated use of my fingers on its tiny keypad in conjunction with its very limited features I was still able to snag some very cool transmissions. This led me to buy a second, more expensive unit. The new unit covered a slightly wider range of frequencies but, more importantly, automated some of the searching functions. I could now let the scanner do all the work and listen while doing other things. Incidentally, the cheapo one is still at work monitoring local police surveillance channels! (see below)

I currently have less than $450 in radio equipment. This includes all my books, antennas, headphones etc. I primarily listen in on medium distance comms (communications) with two lower end scanners, but occasionally will also listen in on long distance transmissions (DX) with an ancient SWR receiver given to me by a friend. And no, I don't listen to all these radios at the same time.

The argument of desktop vs. portable is a hard one to settle. I personally prefer portable models because I conduct listening operations everywhere I go on business or vacation travel. Decide how you will be using your own scanner before you buy it. At some point you will see advertisements for special antennae. Unless you live way, way out in the boonies don't worry about getting a fancy outdoor one or one that says it is super sensitive. In most cases the antenna that came with the receiver will be more than you need. One possible exception is the "Eavesdropper" antenna specially tuned for getting the cordless phone conversations mentioned later.

Legal details

Are scanners legal? Federal laws govern the airwaves. Most laws regarding scanners in North America can be summed up in just two easy points: A) It is legal to passively listen to any radio transmission no matter who makes it. B) It is an offense to act on anything you hear on a not-for-broadcast transmission.

In other words, listening to the ambulance call is okay but chasing the ambulance is not. Tow truck drivers listening to find customers from accident locations are the people who most often run afoul of the law. Most police jurisdictions now call out different tow services in rotation to prevent abuse.

Laws relating to the monitoring of private cell/cordless phone conversations varies from state to state. Consult your local regulations before monitoring phone conversations, yadda, yadda, yadda, etc. You do not currently need a license to own or use a scanner anywhere in North America. Keep in mind though, all major airlines forbid the use of any radio equipment onboard commercial air flights!

What can you hear?

The most obvious transmissions of interest are the 911 folks--police, fire and ambulance. Listening in on these folks can give you details not available elsewhere. Hear the fear (or lack of it) in a cop's voice calling for backup before he later requests an ambulance for a person he just shot. Discover the areas of your town that get the most calls: are they the same areas that politicians say need the most attention? Hear supervisors demand termination of dangerous vehicle pursuits and listen to the cops ignore them or play the old "I can't copy you Chief, there is too much static!" game. Find out where the radar traps are.

By using a good frequency list from the internet or your local Radio Shack you can find all of the frequencies used by your local police--even their tactical and surveillance bands. Be patient after you program the tactical/surveillance ones in because they are usually very low power transmissions (for obvious reasons). You will only hear action on them when they are operating in your area. In my case, I use a separate cheapo scanner for these frequencies. It runs all day by itself, and about once a month I am treated to some cool James Bondish traffic when the local surveillance team follows somebody through my neck of the woods.

Many routine police communications are now sent via computers (called MDTs or Mobile Display Terminals) located in patrol cars. This mode of communication also allows the police the ability to dispatch cars silently to alarm calls or other incidents at which the bad guys may be using a scanner (rare). The use of MDTs has cut down on a lot of law enforcement voice radio traffic, but keep in mind, when the action is hot there is no time for them to type in messages! The widespread use of MDTs has also led to widespread lack of voice radio discipline, resulting in some very frank, unintended utterances over the air by officers.

Hardcore scanner buffs are divided: some bless the rise of MDTs for the elimination of mundane calls from the airwaves, thereby providing an ersatz "action filter". Others curse them for the same reason because they want to hear every call, no matter how routine. MDTs have caused a phenomenon in short/medium distance communications that is similar to the effect the internet has had on long-range/international SWR. Don't despair--even MDT messages can be scanned if you have the right equipment!

A hindrance that police band listeners will occasionally run into are computer generated "channel guard" transmissions. These usually sound like a woodpecker or a continuously quacking duck and cause your scanner to lock onto the frequency they protect, driving you crazy with their ceaseless racket. The noise stops only when an authorized user on that frequency transmits a message. Fortunately, a device called a tone board can be installed in your scanner. It makes your scanner ignore the noise but will still capture the voice transmissions you want. Tone boards are standard equipment on some scanners.

The most common complaint of first time listeners to voice radio traffic is that "everything is numbers and codes." Although it is true that numeric codes are used a lot in military and paramilitary radio communications, these codes are easy to learn with just a little practice. Besides, many transmissions are transmitted in plain language in some jurisdictions, making mastery of alpha-numeric codes unnecessary. Explanations of the codes can be found on the net or in scanner books.

The next most interesting voice radio transmissions are phone calls. People say the damnedest things on the phone. They lie, cheat, and steal for everyone to hear. They have real live phone sex that makes reading the Penthouse Forum seem like Garfield cartoons.

I was once involved in a court case involving my family and a governmental agency. One day an envelope was delivered to my house with a cassette tape in it. A scanner buff who was friendly to our situation (it was a well-publicized case) had recorded cell phone conversations between the opposition team members in which they openly discussed their legal strategy! Holy smokes! Can you say intelligence windfall? The scanner buff involved had accidentally stumbled across the conversation and was alert enough to realize what being said and to record it. Wow.

Cell phones are fairly easy to listen in on, but can sometimes present technical problems. None of these problems is insurmountable. "Trunk Trackers" allow you to follow cell phone users from cell to cell. Frequency converters can be added to older equipment at a fairly low cost and can get/keep you in the phone game. With practice and the right gear, specific cell phones can be specifically targeted and scanned.

I once lived next to a newspaper reporter who talked shop and gossiped to her reporter friends on the telephone... a cordless telephone. After finding her frequency during a routine scan of the cordless phone bands it took less than a week for me to confirm what I had always feared about the media: a) their left wing bias is real and, b) nothing is placed in the newspaper without regards to (a).

Warning: phone call listening is addictive! It is way better than daytime soaps. And best of all there are no codes to learn because people just gab and blab in plain language.

Close to the cordless phones in both frequency and voyeuristic kick are baby monitors. They pick up junior's squeals and farts plus everything else going on in the house. They are extremely sensitive transmitters. If you live in a large apartment complex it should only take a little time scanning the band used by these devices before you pick up something. Keep this in mind if you are using a baby monitor.

As a scanner user you will quickly earn how to master Signals Intelligence, or Sigint. This is the analysis of what is and what is not said, and when it is said or not said. Think about this for a few minutes. It is important. Here is Sigint in a nutshell: things that get said over the air are generally self-explanatory. A transmission like "Power lines down at Fifth and Orchard" on the Works Department frequency easily explains why your neighborhood is without electricity. However, what if your power is out and you hear nothing? It means the power outage extends at least into the area of your Works Dept.'s base, and that they do not have a backup generator. Learn to analyze what is there, when it is there, and when it is not there.

Garbage trucks, snow plows, city works trucks, taxis, pizza delivery, game wardens, meter maids, plumbers, farmers, the military, electricians, etc., all use radios or cell phones as an integral part of their day-to-day routine. You can listen in on them!

The audio link between mobile news crews and the TV studio can be snagged. The on-site crew and the production people back at the studio blab and gab before the feed is switched to being broadcast live ("We now go live to Henny Penny who is at the corner of Cherry and Main…") out to the viewers in TV land. These conversations can provide incredible insight into how our mainstream media news products are built.

Knowledge is power. Far from being just another accouterment of the geek set, ownership of a radio scanner is recommended for every citizen. Had they been invented at the time, our forefathers would have suggested having a radio scanner in addition to powder, ball and musket.

If you're antsy to get started listening in, if you have RealPlayer you can go to a number of Web sites to listen in to scanner transmissions (or, if you need to, download RealPlayer first). Two good sites are: Security Information Center's Live Police Radio Page (42 cities listed), and PoliceScanner.com, which covers police, fire, aviation, and rail transmissions.

I am the Owl. Over and out.

"I am the owl,
I seek out the foul.
Wipe 'em away,
Keep America free
For clean livin' folks like me."

From "I am the Owl" by the Dead Kennedys; Disc: Plastic Surgery Disasters; Alternative Tentacles Records; Lyrics By Jello Biafra

(c) 2000

Send a Letter to the Editor


Table of Contents