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Published: 2008-03-26

Interception and Divulgence of Radio Communications



This Fact Sheet provides general information regarding the interception of radio communications as governed by the Communications Act. This Fact Sheet should not be used as guidance for deciding whether you can engage in any specific activity. This is because this information is too general and because there are other statutes -- Federal and State -- that also govern the interception of radio communications and may make an activity unlawful and may subject the violator to severe criminal penalties. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. Sections 2510-2520. In addition criminal prosecution for a violation of the Communications Act is within the discretion of the Department of Justice.

Of those statutes that may govern interception of radio communications, the FCC only has the authority to interpret Section 705 of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. Section 605, "Unauthorized Publication of Communications." Section 705 of the Communications Act generally does not prohibit the mere interception of radio communications, although mere interception of radio communications may violate other Federal or State statutes. In other words, if you happen to over hear your neighbor's cordless telephone, you do not violate the Communications Act. Similarly, if you listen to radio transmissions on your scanner, such as emergency service reports, you are not in violation of Section 705. However, a violation of Section 705 would occur if you divulge or publish what you hear or use it for your own or someone else's benefit. An example of using an intercepted call for a beneficial use in violation of Section 705 would be someone listening to accident reports on a police channel and then sending his or her tow truck to the reported accident scene in order to obtain business.

The Communications Act does allow for the divulgence of certain types of radio transmissions, however. The statute 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 (i.e. transmissions of a local radio or television broadcast station); or relate to ships, aircraft, vehicles or persons in distress; or are transmitted by amateur radio or citizens band radio operators.

In addition, courts have held that the act of viewing a transmission (such as pay television signal) that the viewer was not authorized to receive is a "publication" violating Section 705. Section 705 also has special provisions governing the interception of satellite television programming that is being transmitted to cable operators. The section 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. In these circumstances, you must obtain authorization from the programming provider in order to legally intercept the transmission.

The FCC also receives many inquiries regarding the interception and recording of telephone conversations. To the extent these conversations are radio transmissions, there would be no violation of Section 705 if there were no divulgence or beneficial use of the conversation. Again, however, the mere interception of some telephone-related radio transmissions, e.g., cellular, cordless and landline conversations, may constitute a criminal violation of other Federal or State statutes. Further, there are Federal and State tariffs that impose conditions for recording telephone conversations. See Use of Recording Devices, 2 FCC Rcd.502 (1987).

The Act also contains provisions that affect the manufacture of equipment used for listening to or receiving radio transmissions, such as "scanners." Section 302(d) of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. Section 302(d), prohibits the FCC from authorizing scanning equipment that is capable of receiving transmissions in the frequencies allocated to domestic cellular services, that is capable of readily being altered by the user to intercept cellular communications, or that may be equipped with decoders that convert digital transmissions to analog voice audio. In addition, such receivers may not be manufactured in the United States or imported for use in the United States after April 26, 1994. 47 CFR 15.121. FCC regulations also prohibit the sale or lease of scanning equipment not authorized by the FCC. 47CFR 2.803.

If after having read this Fact Sheet you want to file a complaint because you believe someone is unlawfully intercepting and divulging or beneficially using radio transmissions, or is in violation of the Act's scanner equipment provisions, you should address your complaint, in writing, to the FCC.

- For Telephone interception related complaints contact:

Consumer Protection Branch, Enforcement Division, Common Carrier Bureau at 2025 M Street. N.W., Room 6202, Washington, D.C. 20554; (202-632- 7553.)

- For Wireless (including cellular telephone) interception related complaints contact:

Enforcement Division, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, at 2025 M Street N.W., Room 8308, Washington, D.C., 20554; (202-418-0569.)

- For Satellite Programming interception related information contact:

Satellite and Radio Communications Division, International Bureau at 2000 M Street N.W., Room 800, Washington, D.C. 20554; (202-418-0749.)

- For Scanner equipment and cordless telephone interception related complaints contact:

Enforcement Division, Compliance and Information Bureau at 1919 M Street, N.W., Room 734; (202) 418-1100;

or Equipment Authorization Division, Office of Engineering and Technology, 7435 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia, MD 21036; (301) 725-1585, ext 221.

Please keep in mind that in order for the Commission to evaluate the merits of your complaint, you must provide very specific information; general allegations usually will be inadequate to warrant any action.

If the matter you are concerned about does not appear to fall exclusively within the parameters of Section 705, the FCC strongly recommends you seek the assistance of an attorney. Further, if you have information regarding a violation of any Federal criminal statute, you should contact your local FBI office.


Last updated 3/7/96.