January 27, 1997


LENGTH: 779 words



Alan Henney likes to listen. "I primarily listen to police, fire, the Federal Government and some business users," says the 29-year-old graduate student, who lives with his parents in suburban Maryland. "The Park Police, the Secret Service, Smithsonian security, the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. marshals, the Drug Enforcement Administration." He pauses. "The shops at Union Station, campus security, building security officers, the security guards at Fort Lincoln Cemetery..."

Cemetery? Oh, yes. "It's kind of a rough neighborhood," Henney elaborates. "There's often security trouble, people being mugged. You just never know who's gonna pop up on a radio frequency."

Besieged politicians plotting against their enemies, for instance? Embattled House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose travails took a bizarre turn two weeks ago when a transcript of his cell-phone war council with G.O.P. allies turned up in the New York Times, may be comforted to know that his was a cutting-edge victimization. John and Alice Martin, the Florida residents-cum-Democratic Party activists who taped Newt & Co.'s call, spotlighted one of America's most curious subcultures.

The boom in wireless communications has led to a corresponding boom in wireless snooping. The community of listeners--as people who use scanning equipment to eavesdrop on various wireless devices call themselves--is startlingly large. Bob Grove, publisher of the scanner journal Monitoring Times, puts their number at 10 million to 20 million.

Whether all their activities are ethical or even legal is highly questionable. To be sure, most scanners are harmless hobbyists hooked on the drama of raw, radio-transmitted reality; some anonymous guy who happens to like listening to plumbers and electricians, for instance, surely poses little threat to the community.

Then there are the true fanatics like Henney, who spends 14 hours a day monitoring police, private security and rescue squads in the Washington-Baltimore corridor. "It's like Cops," he says. "It's real time. It's unfiltered. You don't know what's going to happen next."

And a lot of folks want to. Henney is a volunteer dispatcher for the Breaking News Network, a paging service that alerts local TV producers, free-lance photographers and insurance-claims adjusters to fires, accidents and shootings. Larry Van Horn, assistant editor of Monitoring Times, once overheard some fleeing criminals and alerted the cops to their whereabouts. "There are probably more instances where people have helped the police and fire fighters," he says, "than people who have misused the technology."

But what about the latter? What about industrial spies who steal trade secrets? Or the New York politician who used to brag about hearing former Governor Mario Cuomo's daily phone calls? Or the folks who eavesdrop on your baby monitor at midnight?

And what about the Martins? The Gingrich case illustrates how difficult privacy laws are to enforce in the wireless era. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act made it illegal to divulge intentionally the contents of cell-phone calls, and a 1993 statute outlawed the sale and manufacture of scanners capable of receiving cell-phone signals. But the scanners sold today are easily modified into full-frequency devices. In a press conference last week, the Martins portrayed themselves as hobbyists who accidentally heard the Gingrich call on an ordinary Radio Shack scanner, taped it out of excitement at witnessing history and gave it to Democratic officials out of a sense of civic duty.

But as outraged Republicans and a defensive scanner community quickly pointed out, the Martins' story--now the subject of an FBI probe--has a few problems. Only a deliberately modified scanner is likely to have picked up the Gingrich call and held it long enough to produce such a lengthy recording. And only a couple painfully aware of their action's consequences would have passed the tape on to House ethics committee member Jim McDermott accompanied by a letter asking for immunity from prosecution.

At any rate, the burden of protecting privacy, Grove and his peers contend, lies with cell phoners. "Is everyone entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy?" asks Grove. "Absolutely." But that right, he says, doesn't extend to those who haven't bothered to get scrambling equipment or one of the new (and much more secure) digital phones. "If you take your clothes off, close your eyes and walk down an airport concourse shouting, 'Don't look at me!,' you might have an expectation of privacy," he says. "But is it reasonable?"

--Reported by Greg Aunapu/Miami and Elaine Shannon/Washington

GRAPHIC: COLOR ILLUSTRATION: GARRY BASEMAN FOR TIME, [Drawing of man and woman listening in while four other people talk on cellular telephones]