Much ado about wireless telephone privacy
News reports and a Congressional hearing that resulted from the monitoring, recording and publicizing of a conference telephone call among leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of whom was using a cellphone that was monitored, have led to renewed efforts to restrict radio receiver manufacturing. Proponents of the restrictions want to “improve privacy” with laws against making receivers that can tune to frequencies used for wireless telephone calls.
This approach is wrong. Restricting receivers may reduce eavesdropping conducted by casual listeners, but one’s privacy normally isn’t compromised by casual listeners. Casual listeners who may intercept telephone calls generally don’t know the people whose calls they hear. Most phone calls are as boring as you might expect. The novelty of hearing phone calls usually wears off quickly, and casual listeners move on to monitor unrestricted public safety frequencies.
Purposeful listening to wireless phone calls by people who intend to use what they hear to commit burglaries, bank fraud, credit card fraud, cellphone cloning, and industrial and political espionage isn’t reduced by receiver restrictions. In some cases, purposeful listeners use commonly available scanners. In others, they use specialized equipment or test equipment that isn’t restricted, anyway. Unrestricted scanners can be purchased in other countries and brought into the United States by those who are intent on monitoring wireless phone calls for harmful purposes.
Wireless phone users are more concerned with the rate they pay for calls than they are about the privacy of the calls. Many people use wireless phones in crowded areas where strangers overhear their side of the conversation. It doesn’t seem to inhibit them.
There is more to lose in the restriction of receiver manufacturing than there is to gain in the uniformed effort to stop purposeful listening with a broad initiative.
Dueling trade associations As a sidelight, it is amusing to see the Thomas Wheeler and Jay Kitchen jockey for position on the issue. Wheeler is president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), which largely represents cellular carriers. Most cellular carriers still use analog FM to carry phone calls between cell sites and cellphones. Using analog FM can be described as broadcasting “in the clear,” meaning anyone using an ordinary UHF FM receiver can hear the voices.
Kitchen is president of the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA). Among companies PCIA represents are the new personal communications service (PCS) telephone carriers. PCS carriers use digital technology, including code-division multiple access (CDMA), time-division multiple access (TDMA) and global system for mobile communications (GSM, formerly Groupe Speciale Mobile). Neither CDMA, TDMA nor GSM broadcasts “in the clear.” Even if casual listeners with UHF FM receivers capable of tuning PCS frequencies try to listen, they cannot hear conversations.
CTIA’s members perceive that, if it were widely known, that casual listeners can overhear cellphone calls, it might be counter effective to their effort to sell service to more people. These restrictions perpetuate an illusion that wireless telephone conversations cannot be overheard, whether by casual or purposeful listeners. As a result, Wheeler advocates receiver restrictions. PCIA’s members use a technology that protects them from casual listeners. As a result, Kitchen is much more relaxed about casual listeners, suggesting that worried cellphone users might switch to PCS service offered by his organizations’s members!
Privacy? Who cares? Meanwhile, wireless phone users themselves don’t seem to be that concerned about privacy. An informal survey of 150 cellphone users conducted by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association (CEMA), a part of the Electronics Industries Association (EIA), found that most wireless phone users believe that conversations on cellphones are less secure than on their wired phones at home. Lower rates are more important than privacy to most of the users who were surveyed. Fewer than one out of four would pay a 20% premium for a 100% secure cellphone. Only 15% of the respondents considered privacy most important. Cost was most important to 36%; service reliability was most important to 29%, and clarity was most important to 15%. The survey was formulated by CEMA and was fielded by Verity Group, Fullerton, CA. The results have a margin of error of Ý5%.
It would be better to leave the receiver manufacturers alone. Let them make receivers that can pick up shortwave FM broadcasts “in the clear,” such as analog FM cellphone calls. Make telephone customers aware that their calls could be overheard by casual listeners unless they use a digital service. Remember, purposeful listeners, the ones with the greatest potential to do harm, will be listening regardless of receiver restrictions.
Quoting Kitchen: “There is no doubt that 100% digital PCS technology offers a much greater level of security than the older technology of the analog cellular phone. However, while this advanced wireless technology offers the optimum in protection against electronic eavesdropping, no technology is infallible. As long as there are expert hackers who have the knowledge and wherewithal to breach systems, any technology will be at risk, whether the target is a computer system or a phone system. There must be stiff penalties for people who willfully break into systems. All Americans must realize that even their wireline telephone is only as safe as the lock on the phone box in their local neighborhood.”
Kitchen was commenting on an announcement by several cryptographers that digital phone code security can be breached.
Previous law made it legal to monitor conversations broadcast “in the clear.” Previous law also made it illegal to use information obtained by such monitoring and to divulge the information to anyone else. The previous law allowed casual listening, and that was a better state of affairs than this current march toward more and more restrictions on receiver manufacturing and use.