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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 19:42 GMT 20:42 UK
Q & A: Radio scanners and internet posting

There are fears the safety of the Royal Family and top politicians is at risk because classified security details are being picked up by radio scanning enthusiasts.

So how is this complicated area of techonology being policed and how are the scanners getting away with it?

Q: It is currently legal to own, but illegal to use radio scanners, why?

A: This is a consequence of the particular way in which the law is drafted.

Section 5 (b) (i) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 makes it an offence to use scanning apparatus.

The exact words of the statute prohibit "any person, without legal authority, [to] use any wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the content, sender or addressee of any message (whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not)".

The broader point is that while information and communications technologies are rapidly changing, changes to the law only happen infrequently.

Because of this, it makes sense for the drafting of the law to focus on particular activities, rather than specific technologies.

Q: To what extent is the publication of radio frequencies used by the government and military a risk to national security?

A: This depends. While there is obviously some danger that national security is compromised by the publication of such information, it is implausible that any person who intended any serious harm to British national security could not have obtained this information by other means.

What we are talking about is a hobbyist listening in on (not particularly secure) broadcast frequencies.

It could equally be argued that our police and security services should be taking more care with their communications.

As long ago as World War II, the actress Hedy Lamarr and her partner George Antheil developed a radio communications system whereby the transmitter and receiver moved in sync from frequency to frequency by a pre-determined sequence as signals were broadcast, making it almost impossible for signals to be tracked.

Modern systems based on this basic approach are comparatively secure.

Q: How could the acquisition and publication of "sensitive" information be legally restricted?

A: As explained above, the acquisition of this information is already legally restricted by the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949.

The problem - if it is a problem - is one of enforcement: it is difficult to detect every instance of use of wireless telegraphy (i.e. radio) apparatus to listen in on communications.

As to the publication of this information, this a more difficult issue.

The information in question is held on a server outside the UK and which the laws of the UK therefore does not regulate.

Individuals within the UK, and elsewhere can access this information over the internet.

It is currently very difficult to regulate individual internet users vis a vis the information they access, because of problems of monitoring and enforcement, although some people argue that this is slowly changing.

Q: Are the laws in the UK less restrictive than other countries?

A: Not particularly.

Much of the law covering telecommunications is very dated, and some countries' laws have survived the test of time better than other countries.

As an extreme example, until 2000, telecommunications regulation in Jamaica was on the basis of the Telephone Act 1893 (which was passed even before Marconi invented the radio).

Some countries have gone further than the current UK position and have required that a licence must be obtained in order to own wireless telegraphy equipment.

Q: How do you police access across the electronic spectrum? ?

A: This is a hotly contested issue.

Again the key dilemma is how we ought to regulate an area in which is experiencing rapid technological change.

The last 20 years has seen a huge increase in the use of personal mobile communications, which can only continue into the future, while there are other potential future uses of the electromagnetic spectrum that cannot presently be known.

Some people argue that with modern technologies (so-called "wideband" or "spread spectrum" broadcasting) there is no need to police access to the electromagnetic spectrum, although content regulation and protection of privacy may still be desirable.

See also:

06 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
28 Jun 99 | Americas
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