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The Failure of Counter-Surveillance as Mass Activity

In the physical and human landscape where we live, sparsely settled zones coexist with noisy, crowded spaces.
Rick Prelinger

Issue #58, December 2001

Looking for Answers in the Invisible Landscape

In the physical and human landscape where we live, sparsely settled zones coexist with noisy, crowded spaces. So it is with the radio spectrum, where the invisible landscape changes character as the waves become shorter. The noisy areas are most familiar, the regions where a few thousand high-power radio and TV stations pump words and music to mass audiences 24/7. But the more sparsely settled zones, even if considerably busier, are much less well known. If the entertainment zones of the spectrum are thought of as a kind of superstructure, their "utility corridors" resemble a corresponding base, where production, distribution, and regulation occur. In these private but cacophonous territories, millions of two-way radio users coordinate, command and control the production and movement of goods, the social behavior of people, and the security of private and public property. They are from government agencies, law enforcement, and corporations, and as they talk, millions of other people practice counter-surveillance by listening in.

In a time when public discourse is caught up with terrorism, war, and bellicose conformity, why focus on the obscure end of the radio dial? Because the technological and cultural history of two-way radio monitoring offers considerable insight into how North Americans invest governments and their police power with authority. The history of two-way radio listening becomes particularly important if you consider its political meaning in light of the era when it was a new hobby — during the often violent social changes of the 1960s and early 1970s. As we shall see, perhaps the most interesting question to emerge out of the history of "scanner culture" is why a potentially emancipating and equalizing technology has gone unused as a force for social change.

Radio as Entertainment and Utility

The public monitoring of official business that is being transmitted by radio is nothing new. The first radio amateurs, or hams, devoted much of their time in the 1910s to monitoring naval communications, as there was often little else to hear. The early culture of radio had little to do with entertainment and was much more devoted to technical experimentation and especially DX (distance) reception. Pioneer listeners derived great pleasure simply from picking up faraway stations and experiencing the magic of instantaneous communication over great distances, regardless of the substance of the messages they heard. With the beginning of regular broadcasting in 1920 and the growth of national networks starting in 1922, most mainstream radio listeners redirected their dials towards stations featuring music, drama, news and talk. They left eavesdropping on the vast cacophony of "utility" radio communications to a comparatively small group of technically oriented hobbyists.

Beginning in the 1920s, city and state police departments began to find ways to use newly developed radio technologies. Their stations were medium wave, often just above the top end of the AM dial, easily received on higher-priced home radios. Many urbanites became interested in these readily accessible broadcasts, and police dispatches became popular entertainment for the first time. Popular culture from the gangster era (late 1920s to late 1930s) contains many references to this not-quite-legitimate pastime.

By this time, radio offerings had become differentiated and stratified. In the mainstream was a tiny fraction of spectrum occupied by conventional radio broadcasters. Here was music, news, discussions, radio drama, religious services and lots of advertising (after 1921). This was where most people's sense of what radio was, and might ever be, began and ended. Occupying huge chunks of spectrum and emanating from many times the number of transmitters was what we still call "utility radio" — ships at sea, military communications, industrial and business talk, police, fire and forestry radios, taxicabs and railroads. This was banal, workaday radio whose listeners were considered socially challenged.

In the late 1930s, Edwin R. Armstrong bravely took on highly capitalized competitors and launched the first FM broadcast service, capable of presenting music in higher fidelity than had ever been thought possible. FM was assigned spectrum space between 42 and 50 megacycles (now known as megahertz). Prior to this, radio broadcasting had extended only up to 20-something megahertz, where international shortwave broadcasts might be found during the daytime hours. Various expensive receivers were marketed to receive the new FM band, and many also offered coverage for the spectrum in between, which included an emergent band where technologically savvy jurisdictions were starting police and public safety radio systems. FM broadcasting froze at below its prewar level during World War II, but just after V-J Day, FM was relocated to its present place in the 88-108 MHz band, and the fanciest hobby radios began to feature continuous coverage all the way to 109 MHz. This enabled venturesome radio hobbyists to listen to a much greater variety of radio traffic, and set the stage for scanning twenty years later.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of expensive tunable radios begin to pop up in specialty electronics catalogs. These radios cost between $50 and $200, not impulse buys in the scale of those days, and they were primarily marketed to individuals who had a professional need to monitor VHF and UHF two-way radio services. Then in the mid 1960s, Radio Shack introduced a line of small, handheld, transistor radios, the Patrolman series, which were capable of tuning in the public safety and business bands. Patrolman models were priced at $19.95, and were a great bargain if you could find your desired station amid the thousands of possible channels that were crowded within the two inches of play on the tuner dial.

Police Enter the Mainstream

Scanners were born into a complex and conflicted time. This was the height of escalation in Vietnam and the period of greatest polarization at home. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders found that in the summer of 1967 there were 130 separate racially motivated riots — some would call them rebellions — in the United States. At the same time, crime and the popular perception of danger was higher than it had been for thirty years, and conservative politicians and populist demagogues called for "law and order," most often a code phrase for repressive measures against African Americans and other peoples of color. The Law Enforcement and Assistance Administration, tasked with the rapid upgrade of police capabilities in response to the urban riots and rebellions of the mid-and late-1960s, provided R&D funding to electronics manufacturers to develop handheld radios for police officers.

Concurrent with this heightened consciousness of crime, violence, dissent, and racial polarization came a mainstreaming of the culture of police and policing. Prior to the mid-1960s, policing had been a tacitly more silent function of society. Though police were officially lionized as a "thin blue line" protecting hardworking, law-abiding citizens from a flood of criminality, policing was not a function acknowledged in open terms in polite society. Major class divisions existed between cops and middle-and upper-class citizens, who in general had little contact with police and viewed them as if they were silent servants. Urban police reinforced physical and cultural separation between neighborhoods inhabited by people from different classes and racial groups, doing so under a cover of a silence comparable to the silence that today surrounds what happens inside America's prisons.

But beginning in the late 1960s, police culture went mainstream. Presidents and politicians called for law and order, and made it clear that local police were the primary line of defense against a generalized chaos. Police officers appropriated the epithet "pigs," bestowed on them by antiwar demonstrators, and proudly wore pig pins emblazoned with the slogan "Pride, Integrity, Guts." Key popular films were set in an ambience of policing and crime: Shaft (1969), The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1972), The Godfather (1972). These films and countless others were situated in embattled urban environments and along chase-ridden highways, and often glamorized police activity.

Scanners and Buffs

In 1968, the first scanners that targeted police freqencies came on the market. These radios didn't look or function like earlier radios. Lacking a tuning dial, they contained individual crystals cut to resonate at specific frequencies. Because two-way radio communication was largely comprised of short, intermittent transmissions on a number of different channels, scanners tuned themselves internally from channel to channel, stopping on a particular channel when they sensed activity. Scanners were no cheaper than their tunable precursors. A typical unit cost $100 to $200, an investment most appropriate for determined geeks and police buffs. As these radios were purchased and put into use, a new class of scanner listeners emerged. The emergence of this new social group prompts a critical historical question: Given the social strife engulfing the United States at the time and the newly mainstreamed police culture, with what side of the political spectrum did scanner listeners identify and align themselves? Was it the police or their adversaries?

police state picture!The first purchasers of scanners were those who used them for work, such as reporters, photographers, and volunteer firefighters. But the earliest adopters of scanner technology for recreational purposes were police buffs, people who identified with the police and were fascinated with police activities, albeit from the safety of their homes or car interiors. Because scanners were crystal-controlled, and because listeners had to go to the expense and inconvenience of ordering and purchasing a separate crystal for each channel they wished to monitor, most hobbyists focused in on a favorite channel or two. And as fire and police channels were much better-known than non-public safety frequencies, these channels were obvious and exciting choices. Members of this group saw themselves as part of an unofficial auxiliary police cadre, finding through technology a personally satisfying way to "support your local police." They were also active defenders of scanners and the hobby of police radio monitoring. When the hobby was attacked as being either pathetic or subversive, hobbyists defended it by invoking good-citizen stories of individuals who heard police dispatches over the air, saw perpetrators fleeing a crime, and informed the authorities.

The hobby was therefore marked within the political divides of the 1960s at an early stage of development, creating a technological divide that paralleled the social conflict of that era. In one extreme example of this divide, white vigilante groups and their sympathizers in Newark, N.J., monitored police transmissions and suggested that they could intervene in situations when sworn police officers couldn't mobilize adequate manpower. On the other side of the divide, members of the Black Panther Party in Oakland "patrolled pigs" by following police cars around, by car or on foot, to observe police — community interactions. There is no evidence that Panthers had scanners at their disposal. In both instances, monitoring police behavior was part of a self-defense strategy. But only the white vigilantes used technology on their side. Similarly, I have seen no documentation that antiwar or progressive organizers of the period actively monitored police communications, though I have been told that stolen police walkie-talkies were treated as trophies.

The example of white vigilantes using scanners presents one extreme for the sake of highlighting another. But it doesn't reflect the majority of armchair scanner listeners who did not react publicly to what they heard, and whose interpretations of what they heard are unknown. The messages may be monotonic, but in their way they are as complex as any other medium, their fascination diffuse and difficult to pin down. Were listeners captivated by the apocalyptic nature of the random mix of crime, unrest and disaster that filled the utility airwaves? Were people who identified with law and order unconsciously seeking indicators of disorder? Were listeners identifying with authority or its adversaries, in a pro-or anti-statist ways? Were they seeking some kind of manifest connection with central authority, as personified by the gravelly-voiced dispatchers, or did the illusion of such a link arise from the listener's access to privileged information that was otherwise often not made public? Was the attraction to scanning based in part on the fascinating ambient texture of the audio, the alternation between silence and sound, the mixture of cabalistic-sounding words and numbers? (Some serious scanner buffs modified their radios to increase the length of the "squelch tails," the bursts of static following the end of transmissions.)

The most important question about the emergence of the scanning hobby is, who was listening? Were they technologically inclined suburbanites, making a spectator sport out of urban conflict and decline in America's inner cities? Were they middle-class people fascinated with the mythical exploits of the permanent underclass? Were they white Americans trying to find their own window onto racially distant conflicts between African Americans and police? Were people listening for events that might either confirm or deny their existing prejudices? Was scanning inextricably tied up with racism? Or was it coincidental that scanners hit the market at a time of extreme racial tension?

Rural and Urban Monitoring

Scanners have always been extremely popular in rural areas, perhaps for reasons different from those that make them popular in urban areas. To this day you can hear scanners in country gas stations, stores, and other places of public commerce and assembly. Often they are present because someone nearby is a volunteer firefighter or paramedic and needs to know the status of alerts or ongoing events. In other cases, they address the almost universal feeling of curiosity that people have about others, and the sense of entertainment that accompanies the satisfaction of voyeurism. But in rural America, scanners also serve a special function, nearly absent in more urbanized communities: they help to enable mutual aid between citizens and strengthen a sense of community by strengthening awareness of accidents, fires, and potential threats to community well being. And in smaller communities, where residents are familiar to one another, they can serve to enhance the accountability of public workers and government institutions by investing their official activities with greater transparency.

In cities and suburbs, the motivations for listening to two-way transmissions have always been more diffuse. Metropolitan residents are not known for coming to the aid of neighbors in distress, largely because neighbors are often strangers. Entertainment and titillation are more significant, and the atomized nature of life in urban and suburban America suggests that curiosity rather than community spirit accounts for much scanner listening. During the 1980s, eavesdropping on cellular telephone calls became a nationwide urban pastime, especially in urban areas frequented by celebrities and rabid fans. The producer and host of a well-known talk show, both of whom were frequently mentioned in the gossip columns in their own right, spent many evenings trolling cell phone frequencies in search of titillating or celebrity-related calls. Because of the high communications density in many neighborhoods, others found they were able to easily listen in on their neighbor's cordless phone calls, which shared channels with baby monitors which were also a target for listeners revelling in the possibility of hearing bedroom conversations broadcast by misplaced transmitters.

Mainstreaming Secrets

In 1975, the first programmable scanners were introduced. These permitted users to punch in the exact frequencies they wished to monitor and scan a customized list of channels. Crystals, previously available only by special order, were no longer needed. Around that time the first national frequency guides were published, so that the frequencies allocated to government agencies and businesses, though generally part of the public record, were no longer hard to learn. A few scanner associations and clubs also began to publish newsletters, and a period of new sophistication and technical literacy began. By 1980, highly sophisticated receivers were available at comparatively low cost, and almost all communications in the VHF and UHF two-way radio bands were open to interception. Here and there, a few local agencies scrambled their communications, but they were few and far between and knowledgeable hobbyists could easily defeat the primitive technology that was used.

police state picture!One of the first veils to fall in this period of greatly expanding listening power was the mystery surrounding Federal government radio communications. For a long time, Federal communications were broadcast primarily on frequencies outside the usual public safety bands. Few people knew the exact frequencies unless the frequencies had been reported to international telecommunications agencies. As soon as programmable scanners became available, avid hobbyists turned their attention to searching the mysterious Federal bands and soon compiled detailed lists and system profiles detailing the secrets of FBI, Secret Service, DEA and military radio systems throughout the country.

The Feds were understandably not happy about this new transparency. In a relatively short period of time (roughly from 1978 through 1983) hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to add digital voice protection (DVP) capability to key Federal radio systems, including the FBI and particularly the Department of Energy, given their responsibility for building and transporting nuclear weapons. By the time the Olympics arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, the large security force was technically capable of conducting almost all of its business in scrambled voice. A listener tuning into one of the scrambled frequencies would hear what appeared to be bursts of static, but was actually scrambled voice. To this day, no one has publicly admitted to having cracked this system.

Most Federal radio aficionados were technically adept and interested less in the content of what they heard (routine administrative messages, quite often in code, but occasionally exciting surveillance operations) than in the challenge of figuring out system structure and operations. There is some evidence that a few listeners, such as the Oakland Hells Angels chapter in the late 1970s, and the Branch Davidians in the 1990s, were themselves under surveillance. However, the historical evidence suggests that in general the monitoring community was more interested in technical challenges than in intelligence information. There is almost no evidence that anyone monitored Federal agencies in an effort to render their activities more transparent to the public. Monitoring was primarily a secretive, technically oriented activity, akin to hacking computers but lacking the anarcho-libertarian political culture that has come to be associated with hacking.

Criminal Sanctions

The ability to monitor two-way communications has always carried the promise of revelatory potential. Because the semi-private messages of government and industry reveal much about the internal functions of those institutions, scanning has the potential to be part of a suite of strategies that would open the institutions up and render their activities more transparent and thus more accountable. As a writer identified only as "The Owl" states on the Doing Freedom website, "If firearms are liberty's teeth, and cryptography is liberty's voice, then radio scanners must surely be liberty's ears."

But with very few exceptions, radio monitoring has not fulfilled its potential as a tool for public revelation and accountability. The reasons are complex, but can perhaps be reduced to two threads: first, the long history of governmental efforts to ensure communications privacy by criminalizing radio interception; second, the antagonistic relationship of hobbies to social change.

The Communications Act of 1934 did not prohibit listening to any particular radio service or message, but it did forbid divulging the contents of any message to anyone other than the addressee. This law, still in effect today, means that it is perfectly all right to monitor police broadcasts, as long as one refrains from passing on the information gained or profiting from it. A number of people have been found guilty of violating this provision of the Act, including the elderly Democratic couple who allegedly monitored a cell phone conversation in which Newt Gingrich revealed Republican

Some cities and states embellished this legislation with special-purpose laws, such as the New York City and Michigan laws that required police permits to install radios capable of receiving police transmissions in automobiles. Many local police departments, utility companies, fire departments, and even towing companies created radio codes (such as the famous "10-4"), in some cases to conceal meaning but much more often for brevity and clarity. Few radio codes ever remained secret for very long, as code sheets were shared among hobbyists and police buffs and often given away at Radio Shack stores.

Digital voice protection, informally known as "scrambling," was the next strategy deployed by government agencies in their effort to insure secrecy of communications. Though this would seem to be an all-purpose, comprehensive technical solution, it was expensive and frequently undependable, and never made it into the mainstream. Few local police departments, for example, could afford to pay $3000 for each encryption-capable walkie-talkie. Had there been a significant threat, it is likely that Federal law enforcement grant money would have been forthcoming. But in the comparative domestic calm of the late 1970s and early 1980s, such an expense was totally impractical.

Private industry was responsible for the next stage of criminalization. When cell phones were introduced to the American consumer market in 1983, scanner listeners immediately discovered that calls could easily be monitored. Though people had been listening in to mobile telephones, marine telephones and cordless phones for years, there were comparatively few mobile phone users compared to the numbers of cell phone customers which were soon to reach the millions. Cell phone monitoring soon became a major pastime, and hundreds of thousands of scanners were probably sold for this purpose alone. The cellular telephone industry quickly became concerned. If they were not able to guarantee some measure of communications security to their customers, they worried that adoption of the new technology might stall. Two choices confronted them: either develop encryption technology or seek legislation forbidding cell phone monitoring. Since the second appeared less expensive, even if ineffectual, the Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA) lobbied Congress, and in 1986 the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was enacted.

The ECPA divided the spectrum into go-and no-go regions. It criminalized cell phone monitoring, interception of digital signals and digital pagers, and listening to certain other specific services. It made the sales of cellular-capable scanners illegal. Now, all scanners legally sold in the United States have a gap between 824 and 893 MHz. There was little concern that this law was unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional, but it allowed cellular carriers to boast that it was illegal to monitor customer calls. This strategy seems to have worked, as cell phone sales marched on throughout the 80s. Then in the early 1990s, digital cellular and digital PCS services began to spread. These systems cannot be monitored without special equipment to which most hobbyists lack access. The new Nextel phones are similar, though it is rumored that there is government back door access to its digitally encoded voice and data system.

The jails haven't exactly filled up with scanner listeners and hobbyists in the years since the ECPA legislation took effect, but it did exert a chilling effect on their activities. The exchange of information between hobbyists regarding certain sensitive frequencies and monitorable events was closely guarded and subject to unofficial protocols of caution. Then, two months ago, the attacks of September 11 silenced many hobbyists who formerly exchanged frequencies and system information freely, if with caution. A number of web sites devoted to frequency updates are now closed, and traffic on listservs and Usenet newsgroups devoted to scanning is way down. There has been much dialogue along the World War II-era theme of "loose lips sink ships," and many believe that divulging information (even if it is in the public record) serves the interests of America's enemies. Self-censorship seems to be ruling.

Revelations Squandered

There is admittedly a great deal of trivial traffic on the two-way radio channels of America. But there is also much information that might prove useful to advocates of social change. Radio transmissions reveal much about the inner workings of government, private corporations and other institutions. Surprisingly little evidence exists that activists have made constructive use of these channels of information until quite recently. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions. Press coverage reveals that Greenpeace often monitors adversarial radio traffic, and the Ruckus Society has announced a "Tech Toolbox Action Camp," with sessions to cover "introductory and advanced communications, surveillance and counter-surveillance." Other direct action groups have, on occasion, monitored police or corporate radio transmissions. However, it seems striking to me that most activists seem much less interested in what their opponents are doing than their opponents are in them.

Is this due to a technological divide or cultural difference? Perhaps a bit of both. Progressive activists have, all too often, conceded technological superiority to representatives of established interests. This does not have to be so. Ironically, the activists most open today to employing advanced technologies in their work are often those with carefully elaborated and thoughtful critiques of contemporary technology and its control. Interesting contradictions might well arise if more activists looked more deeply into the capabilities offered by new and emerging technologies.

The question of cultural difference between hobbyists and activists is complex. Hobby activities are self-actualizing in a deeply personal way that is often inherently isolating. It is rare that overt political thought converges with hobby activities, and there seems always to have been a protective (or defensive) impulse in scanner culture, an impulse that seeks to avoid divisive discourse that might result in sanctions against the hobby being imposed from the outside. Explicit cultural and political differences also play a role: there are many police buffs whose politics may not harmonize with others more motivated to work for social change. In scanner monitoring circles, law and cautiousness sometimes seem to coalesce into a generalized sense of protectiveness which can be summarized in this way: "it's OK for us to listen, we're the good guys, but we have to be careful about where we go with what we hear."

At an extreme, hobby activities act as a powerful brake on social change by isolating individuals, substituting a concentration on detail for concern with a bigger picture, and imposing a consciously apolitical consensus upon their practitioners. This does not have to be so, as the history of the hacker movement shows. It's interesting to imagine an army of citizen listeners using their radios as tools to bring about more open and accountable governments and more publicly responsible corporations. Such a distributed effort seems more urgent than lending personal computer time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Rick Prelinger is a media archaeologist.

Copyright © 2001 by Rick Prelinger. Images from the film On Guard; courtesy Prelinger Archives. All rights reserved.