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Interception and Divulgence of Radio Communications

Federal Communications Commission logo - RF CafeThe state of Virginia has for as long as I remember had a law prohibiting the use of radar detectors in vehicles. For the same amount of time, controversy has existed over whether the ban violates the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules regarding interception and divulgence of radio communications. As outlined in the statement on the the FCC website (see below), there does not appear to be justification for Virginia's law. To wit, "The FCC and the Communications Act do not forbid certain types of interception and disclosure of radio communications, including: Mere interception of radio communications, such as overhearing your neighbor's conversation over a cordless telephone, or listening to emergency service reports on a radio scanner." That seems pretty unambiguous. The main point is you may not divulge to someone else the intercepted communication, which means you cannot relay your knowledge of a radar speed gun signal over a CB radio or cellphone. That applies to all states.

For the latest information, go to the fcc.gov website.

Interception and Divulgence of Radio Communications FCC Consumer Facts (December 30, 2019)

Federal and state laws make intercepting and divulging radio communications illegal and punishable by severe criminal penalties, with certain exceptions.

What kinds of interception and divulgence of radio transmissions are legal?

The FCC and the Communications Act do not forbid certain types of interception and disclosure of radio communications, including:

  • Mere interception of radio communications, such as overhearing your neighbor's conversation over a cordless telephone, or listening to emergency service reports on a radio scanner (although intercepting and/or recording telephone-related radio communications may be a violation of other federal or state laws).
  • Divulgence of certain radio communications that were transmitted for use by the public (such as over-the-air radio and television broadcasts).
  • Divulgence of broadcasts related to ships, aircraft, vehicles or persons in distress.
  • Divulgence of transmissions by amateur radio or citizen band radio operators.

What kinds of interception and divulgence are prohibited?

The Communications Act prohibits a person from using an intercepted radio communication for his or her own benefit. Examples of this include:

  • A taxicab company intercepting radio communications between dispatchers and drivers of a rival company to gain competitive advantages.
  • Unauthorized interception of signals from pay television services, such as cable or satellite.
  • A person selling or publishing a recording or contents of someone else's wireless phone conversation.

What about equipment used to intercept radio communications?

The Communications Act prohibits the FCC from authorizing radio scanning equipment that:

  • Can receive transmissions in the frequencies allocated to domestic cellular services.
  • Can readily be altered by the user to intercept cellular communications.
  • May be modified to convert digital transmissions to analog voice audio.

It is illegal to manufacture, import, sell or lease such unauthorized equipment in the United States.

 

Printable Version

Interception and Divulgence of Radio Communications (download PDF)

 


Here is the previous statement circa 2008

Background

Interception and divulgence of radio communications is governed by many jurisdictions, including federal and state. Since September 11, 2001, many of the rules have changed. Some federal and state laws make intercepting and divulging radio communications unlawful and may subject the violator to severe criminal penalties. The Department of Justice has the authority to prosecute violators of these laws.

Unauthorized Publications of Communications

The FCC has the authority to interpret Section 705 of the Communications Act – "Unauthorized Publication of Communications." This section generally does not prohibit the mere interception of radio communications, although merely intercepting radio communications may violate other federal or state laws. This means that if you inadvertently happen to overhear your neighbor's cordless telephone conversation or listen to radio transmissions on your scanner, such as emergency service reports, you do not violate the Communications Act.

The Communications Act also allows the divulgence of certain types of radio transmissions. The law specifies that there are no restrictions on the divulgence or use of radio communications that have been transmitted for the use of the general public. Such radio communications include transmissions of a local radio or television broadcast station; announcements relating to ships, aircraft, vehicles, or persons in distress; or transmissions by amateur or citizens band radio operators.

Section 705 prohibits a person from using an intercepted radio communication for his or her own benefit. One court held that, under this provision, a taxicab company may sue its competitor for wrongfully intercepting and using for its benefit radio communications between the company's dispatchers and drivers. A more recent Supreme Court decision, however, questions the ability of the government to regulate the disclosure of legally-obtained radio communications, and this area of the law remains unsettled.

In addition, the courts have determined that the act of viewing a transmission – such as a pay television signal – that the viewer was not authorized to receive is a "publication" and this violates Section 705. Section 705 also prohibits the interception of satellite cable programming for private home viewing if the programming is either encrypted (i.e., scrambled) or is not encrypted, but is sold through a marketing system. To legally intercept such a transmission, you must have authorization from the programming provider.

The Communications Act also contains provisions that affect the manufacture of equipment used for listening to or receiving radio transmissions, such as "scanners." The FCC cannot authorize scanning equipment that:

  • can receive transmissions in the frequencies allocated to domestic cellular services;
  • can readily be altered by the user to intercept cellular communications; or
  • may be equipped with decoders that convert digital transmissions to analog voice audio.
In addition, these receivers may not be manufactured in the United States or imported for use in the United States. FCC regulations also prohibit the sale or lease of scanning equipment that is not authorized by the FCC.

Filing a Complaint with the FCC

If you have concerns regarding the interception and divulgence of radio communications, you can file a complaint with the FCC. There is no charge for filing a complaint. You can file your complaint using the on-line complaint Form 2000E found on the FCC Web site at https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us. You can also file your complaint with the FCC's Consumer Center by e-mailing fccinfo@fcc.gov; calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554.

What to Include in Your Complaint

The best way to provide all the information the FCC needs to process your complaint is to complete fully the on-line complaint Form 2000E. If you do not use the on-line complaint Form 2000E, your complaint, at a minimum, should indicate:

  • your name, address, email address, and phone number where you can be reached;
  • name and phone number of the company that you are complaining about; and
  • any additional details of your complaint, including time, date, and nature of the conduct or activity you are complaining about and identifying information for any companies, organizations, or individuals involved.
If you have information regarding a violation of any federal criminal statute, you should contact your local FBI office.

For More Information

For more information on recording telephone conversations, see the FCC's consumer fact sheet at www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/recordcalls.html. For information about other telecommunications issues, visit the FCC's Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau Web site at www.fcc.gov/cgb, or contact the FCC's Consumer Center using the information provided for filing a complaint.

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
445 12th St. S.W. · Washington, DC 20554
1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322)
TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322)
Fax: 1-866-418-0232
www.fcc.gov/cgb/

For this or any other consumer publication in an accessible format (electronic ASCII text, Braille, large print, or audio) please write or call us at the address or phone number below, or send an e-mail to FCC504@fcc.gov. To receive information on this and other FCC consumer topics through the Commission's electronic subscriber service, visit www.fcc.gov/cgb/contacts/. This document is for consumer education purposes only and is not intended to affect any proceeding or cases involving this subject matter or related issues.

 

 

Posted November 5, 2020(original 3/10/08)

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