View Full Version : Illegal Use of Scanner?

8th Jun 2001, 00:20
Following the tragedy at the Isle of Man with a BE58 crashing into the sea yesterday a Manx local tabloid newspaper has carried a front page story purporting to be an eye witness account of the incident.
The witness openly confesses that she heard the aircrafts distress call on a scanner and has given the details to all and sundry.
Surely this is illegal, if not showing a high lack of morality and compassion for the grieving relatives?

[This message has been edited by boynefly (edited 07 June 2001).]

8th Jun 2001, 00:43
"...a Manx local tabloid newspaper..."

says it all, I would say.
And "no", scanners are not illegal, everybody can listen in and may tell it.
Remains the moral and dignity aspect, I have to agree...

8th Jun 2001, 01:11
I assume the question relates to the British Isles so Screwjacks statement of the position in Miami FLA (from profile) may mislead. Even there I believe the FCC take a dim view of intercepting celphones and disable scanners for the US market accordingly.

The Isle of Man is a separate legal jurisdiction to the rest of the UK, so the position may be different again. In the UK it is illegal to listen to anything except licensed broadcast stations, amateurs and certain weather x/missions (not sure if this includes Volmet etc). The relevant legislation is the Wireless Telgraphy Act and the Interception of communications Act. See the Radio Communications Agency's leaflet RA169 on receive only scanners available on their website
http://www.radio.gov.uk/. I think there is also something specific to aviation but I can't find the reference.

In practice enforcement depends on what you listen too. Eavesdropping on ATC is generally ignored as harmless, the number of scanners in open use in spectators areas and at airshows is testimony to this. Indeed the CAA are thouht to recognise the value of this as a trainig aid for wanabee pilots and are reluctant to back prosecutions. Get caught with Police FRX in your scanners memory and you are facing confiscation and an criminal record.

Aside from morality there are separate offences for passing information on to others. Respectable scanner hobbyists are scrupulous about that particularly if tabloid publication is possible. Unfortunately there are always the less fastidious particularly if money is involved as well as the young and stupid. Some will I am sure recall the tragic accident to a Bandeirante out of Leeds in 1995, where a teenager in Kendal claimed to have heard distress calls on a scanner given to him for Christmas.

[This message has been edited by Airbanda (edited 07 June 2001).]

[This message has been edited by Airbanda (edited 07 June 2001).]

8th Jun 2001, 01:14
Yes it is illegal. (ref. Wireless telegraphy act). Some may know of my involvement in the incident concerned - If you do not, then rest assured I have a better knowledge than any other person of the ACTUAL happenings. I am deeply sorry for the family of the deceased, and knowing of the nature of the person who made the "eye-witness" account , though I belive that the press will publish anything sensational, I am appalled at the way that such an unsubstantiated report should be splashed across a "newspaper" for all - including relatives to see. May the authorities recognise this person for what they are and prosecute for illegal use of a scanner.

8th Jun 2001, 01:16
This might be so in the USA Screwjack but not over here I think. I can't quote verbatim but I believe that in the UK it's not illegal to listen but it's illegal to divulge publicly what you've heard. In some European countries scanners are illegal unless you hold an appropriate licence.

8th Jun 2001, 01:27
I had the same problem while in the Falklands. A Chinook tragically crashed killing the crew and some groundcrew. A "bennie" heard the subsequent RT and before the fires had died down had called a tabloid in the UK and the TV picked up the story saying "a helicopter had crashed in the Falkland Islands". You can imagine what the families felt back in the UK as we had 60+ personnel. I spent a very frantic time ringing wives etc to let them know it was not their husband while the Chinook Boss back in the UK had the hard task of breaking the news to those involved. If the "bennie" had been found he/she would have had a very hard time!!

8th Jun 2001, 02:21
I thought it was only police transmissions in the UK that were subject to any protective law. Perhaps I'm wrong.

Aside, I have heard a genuine mayday call from one of my colleagues on a scanner at the office in the comfort of my leather chair; the sound of a 10,000 hr pilot talking like he was about to burst in to tears is one that will never leave my mind, and certainly not one that I would ever consider as "entertainment" for the general public. The consequences of this event 1 minute and 23 seconds later was his colleague drowning after a succesful ditching.

Perhaps not a story attributable to this incident, but a personal example of how horrible such situations are & how anybody can use them as "gossip" is beyond me.

8th Jun 2001, 06:00
Here's the pertinent link referenced above from the Radiocommunications Agency:


Lurk R
8th Jun 2001, 08:11
In Australia scanners are not illegal but I believe it is illegal to use anything you hear to your advantage. Sometimes on the evening news a story might show a high speed car chase for example and a tape of the police transmissions being played as the drama unfolds...

8th Jun 2001, 10:56
airbanda is quite correct. In the UK (and that includes the IoM and Channel Islands) it is legal to listen without a licence only to authorised broadcast stations, amateur stations and stations in the 'Standard Time and Frequency Service.' I expect GPS is counted as a 'broadcast station'. Licence exempt operation (cordless and mobile phones, garage door openers etc) only allows the reception of messages intended for the recipient. Reception of communications by accident is covered by a confidentiality clause in licences.

The only 'exception' to this is that any station receiving a distress call (MAYDAY)has a duty under the Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunications Union to afford such aid as may be possible. I don't think that is on the RA website, though.

8th Jun 2001, 12:22
The Media, Newspapers and TV, radio and insurance assesors use all means possible to " GET THE NEWS FIRST ", why do you think that they are allways on site as soon a a fire or flood or RTA occurs, they use all means to obtain information, and that means what you say whilst in the air will be heard by more people than you think.
The sad thing is these people think they have the right to broadcast this sort of information to the world, and don't care a jot for the feelings of friends or relatives of people who have been involved.
Totally down to lack of moral standards, and the ability to get between the snake and the earth!

8th Jun 2001, 14:27
If you wish to draw this particular incident to the notice of the authorities, then you can e-mail

[email protected]

Also [email protected]

Colin is Head of the Enforcement Unit.

8th Jun 2001, 15:16
Morality aside - very few journo's have any anyway - can you imagine the legal minefield the authorities would have to go through in attempting to prosecute someone for doing this?
It's a sad fact that most tabloid papers will print all sorts of crap about any story, so long as they think it will sell newspapers. They know that those affected by what they print seldom have the resources to take them on in court, and even when they do, the cost of any damages awarded is miniscule compared to the income derived from publishing the original story.
As those of you who work at the UK's bigger airports may be aware, it's no secret that some 'spotters' work in teams from the viewing areas, videoing movements and recording atc in the hope of catching an incident, which thy then sell on to the media.

It wasn't me.

8th Jun 2001, 15:58
Its not illegal to listen to police transmissions.However it is illegal to act on any information you receive.

8th Jun 2001, 16:00
My understanding of the legislation in summary is that you need a radio telephony licence to legally listen to such channels and if you have one (and as this witness was apparently a pilot presumably they did) you have automatically signed the Official Secrets Act which forbids the person divulging the contents except to the relevant authorities on demand.

Whatever the legal theories it is perhaps a shame that the person who did this failed to remember that the family of the deceased would have to read her description in the paper.

8th Jun 2001, 16:03
sorry mach 78,

It is ILLEGAL in the UK to listen to the police.

From RA169:
Although it is not illegal to sell, buy or own a scanning or other receiver in the UK, it must only be used to listen to transmissions meant for GENERAL RECEPTION. The services that you can listen to include Amateur and Citizens' Band transmissions, licensed broadcast radio and weather and navigation broadcasts.

It is an offence to listen to any other radio services unless you are authorised by a designated person to do so.

There are two offences under law:

Under Section 5(1)(b) of the WT Act 1949 it is an offence if a person "otherwise than under the authority of a designated person,


(i) uses any wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the contents, sender or addressee of any message whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not, of which neither the person using the apparatus nor a person on whose behalf he is acting is an intended recipient;

This means that it is illegal to listen to anything other than general reception transmissions unless you are either a licensed user of the frequencies in question or have been specifically authorised to do so by a designated person. A designated person means:

the Secretary of State;
the Commissioners of Customs and Excise; or
any other person designated for the purpose by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

9th Jun 2001, 01:18
Thanks radeng, was just about to post the same correction.
Furthermore having police frequencies in a scanner memory (and most have a memory far too complicated for the user to understand) is regarded as evidence of listening. If you are an upstanding citizen with no previous you might get off with a reprimand and confiscation of your kit. This happened to a contact of mine. If you have been done before then prosecution is automatic.
So if you must listen make sure you know the memory purge procedure for your scanner and practice the drill!!!!

[This message has been edited by Airbanda (edited 08 June 2001).]

9th Jun 2001, 02:34
Therefore it MAY not be illegal to listen if I stumble across the frequecy,as there is no intent.

To prove intent may be difficult and would depend on for example utilisation of preset channels, or other circumstances in which it is used, e.g. sitting outside bank,scanner in hand, with commando mask on, wearing black and white striped jumper?

Need I say more?

9th Jun 2001, 03:11
What about the current promo on National Geographic channel regarding the Avianca crash in New York where we hear the pilot in a clear American accent say "...we're running out of fuel."

Next thing you see is the Avianca fuselage crashed.

I assume these were FAA released tapes of the cockpit to controller conversations and that they were not pickups from private channels.

Captain Numpty
9th Jun 2001, 04:03
Quite right Mach78....I know. I am a Copper. Basically, it is NOT illegal to listen to transmissions, albeit it is an offence to act on any information that you might hear. i.e. attending the scene of crime etc.... However, it is an offence to be in possession of a scanner where the unit has been been "tampered" with and there is intent to listen to Police or other Goverment Broadcasts. For example, you buy a scanner from Tandy, but it doesn't have Police frequencies on it. The unit is then altered/configured so that it does....then an offence has been committed as the scanner is NOT being used for the purpose for which it was purchased.


9th Jun 2001, 11:35
Captain Numpty - Your post represents a somewhat unprofessional attitude for a police officer which you claim to be.
Can you tell me where in the wireless telegraphy act it mentions anything about as you say:-
" Basically, it is NOT illegal to listen to transmissions, albeit it is an offence to act on any information that you might hear. i.e. attending the scene of crime etc...."
Airbubba's link on the previous page, to the UK radio regulatory authority page gives the Wireless telegraphy act clearly for all to see.
Neither I do not remember reading within that law anything related to accidental selection of any frequency and then listening to it. This must still therefore be regarded as an offence - even though I agree that the burden of proof would probably be too great even if a person were caught in such a circumstance. So a prosecution would not be possible.
Finally I refer to the case in question once more, where a person has heard (or claims to have heard) an ATC conversation. A story referring this sad event is given to the newspapers, which is incidentally at odds with the recorded ATC transmissions. This information is deeply upsetting for the bereaved family and those in agencies involved in the incident. This is just one of the reasons that the law exists as in most other reasons, to protect the public from people who will act this way upon information that they have no right to receive.
I do accept that people who have a genuine interest in aviation may wish to listen to ATC transmissions for purely their own purposes, this is as earlier stated quite harmless. Nevertheless it remains illegal.

[This message has been edited by fragul (edited 09 June 2001).]

[This message has been edited by fragul (edited 09 June 2001).]

9th Jun 2001, 14:22
Captain Numpty,

Thank you, glad to see someone who actually knows what they are talking about.You are the one at the sharp end, who knows the law through practice-as indeed I once did.Thought through the cobwebs I was right.

I for one appreciate the difference between someone who utilises and enforces the law on an everyday basis-and an anorak who thinks he knows the law.

[This message has been edited by mach78 (edited 09 June 2001).]

9th Jun 2001, 15:40
Mach 78,
Why cannot we discuss this without chucking in insults?

The act and advice from the RA are quite clearly worded. The practice of enforcement ie how the copper on the street or his bosses choose to attempt prosecution may well differ. When you could receive police transmissions on a domestic VHF receiver an odl lady listening in was probably quite safe, a scanner enthusaist these days may be. If they want to nick you they can. Interpretation will then be for the Court.

Airbanda-happy to be an anorak!

Captain Numpty
9th Jun 2001, 16:34
Fragul, your point is noted....However, we shall, on this occasion have to agree to disagree.

However, I shall leave you with the following to consider....

If it is illegal to listen to information over the air via scanners....then why are scanners so readily and easily available from many electrical outlets, with Aviation/ Marine, Military and various other frequencies programmed in ???????

In the circumstances, I don't propose to enter into any further correspondence in respect of this matter, espcially given the tradgic events that started this original posting.

Furthermore, I am sorry if you consider my posting to be "unprofessional". Quite how you arrived at this remark is totally beyond me, after all I was only sharing my knowledge and EXPERIENCE in dealing with these matters, which with respect.....is probably more than you will ever do, unless you want to share your "personal experiences" of course!

In the final analysis. I certainly do not condone the actions of individual concerned. However, lets get things in perspective here Gentleman. What is now being discussed is an issue/ interpretation of the law. Whether we agree or not is a personal opinion, and in the circumstances, is of no practical relevance to this topic.

Afterall, isn't it illegal to do more than 70Mph on the Motorway?.....How many of us have broken that law?

Ok....enough handbags.



PS Fragul... I am not offended for the record.....As comments like yours are like water off a ducks back. Comes with the territory. Day in day out! :rolleyes:

[This message has been edited by Captain Numpty (edited 09 June 2001).]

[This message has been edited by Captain Numpty (edited 09 June 2001).]

[This message has been edited by Captain Numpty (edited 09 June 2001).]

9th Jun 2001, 18:17
Please tell me, when you buy a scanner at,say, Tandy does the bad skin, greasy hair and bad breath come with it or does one have to already own such accessories?


9th Jun 2001, 20:21
Well glad we got that one cleared up.I don't think any police "secrets" have been given away either.
It's not the enthusiast the police are after, its the criminal who is listening in order to evade apprehension from serious crime.
Legislation such as quoted earlier-would not be given a second thought by such men.

9th Jun 2001, 21:59

Not usually. Why did you ask, did yours come with it? :)

Sounds like you have got a good deal

9th Jun 2001, 22:40
OK Captain Numpty - your points taken too -
As I said earlier I can't see any harm at all in enthuiasts use of scanners. Don't get me wrong.

I did not intend to offend you personally either - I was just surprised at your tacit approval of what appears to be illegal in your postion.

Agreed we let this topic rest in peace along with the deceased.

My only relevant experience was to have been the last person to speak to him - as Aerodrome controller on the fateful day.