Wireless Tapping | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Wireless Tapping 

Go ahead. Say it on your car phone. Nobody's listening. That would be against the law.

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"So I'm lookin' at this yahoo and I'm thinkin', what the heck are you doin' at Burger King at 11 o'clock at night anyway, you yimp-yacker. I gotcher Whopper right here."

Somebody might have said that. Imagine it. Late at night, some guy's driving home, jawing with his wife on a cellular car phone. Says he's tired and angry. He just had a run-in with another guy at a Burger King. Calls him a yimp-yacker.

Maybe.

Another guy, maybe, is talking to his bookie about the under-over bet on the Bulls game.

"Bulls over, Bulls over. Who are the Bulls playing? They're playing Sacareno, right?"

"Yeah."

"That should be an over, you know why?"

"Why?"

"Because those two teams are such low scorers, it looks like a pizza pie taking the one-eighty-eight and going under. It looks like a pizza pie."

"Well, you never know."

It could have happened.

With so many cellular car phones in the Chicago area--let's face it--people are going to talk. All sorts of things must get talked about by all kinds of people. I'm sure they talk about ordinary things: plans for the weekend, sales at Sears, dumb stunts by the boss. Probably they talk about money and business during the day, and about food and sex and sports at night. There must be a lot of talk about illness and injuries and doctors and hospitals. Perhaps they occasionally speak in French.

I wouldn't know.

A lot of people on car phones probably say they're on their way to the health club, or on their way home from the health club. People must call in for their voice-mail messages. Maybe they ask for directions. They probably order merchandise from catalogs, make dinner reservations, break dentist appointments, and buy plane tickets. Maybe they even give out their credit-card numbers. Maybe there are conversations like this:

"I'll put that on American Express. Number 2312 ..."

"OK, Mr. Reynolds, you're confirmed on American Airlines flight number 242 to Boston ..."

At the same time some people are yapping about the usual, I'm guessing, others are getting into saucier stuff. Like two foreign-sounding guys deciding how to fence stolen goods:

"Call this guy up, man. I told him you'd call."

"I don't know what he wants."

"He wants the phone and VCR."

"I give him the phone and the VCR, but he don't give me shit."

"He give you 500 dollar, man."

I'm guessing about these things, because, naturally, I don't know. I mean, how would I? It's not like I have some way of eavesdropping on car-phone conversations. It's not like I went out to Radio Shack, pulled $300 or $400 out of my wallet, and bought a police-style radio scanner.

Or borrowed one for a week or so.

But as I understand it, a scanner tuned to the "800 band"--that's 800 to 900 megahertz--can easily pick up cellular-phone signals. A listener can't select what he'll hear, of course; the pickings are pretty random, I guess, and signals evaporate quickly. And some scanners are sold with the 800 band electronically "blocked out," but it can be restored through the snip of a diode or some other simple surgery. As I understand it.

It's like ham radio. For decades, ham operators have been picking up radio signals from all over the world. Turn on your equipment, set it on "scan," and in minutes you can be listening to Lithuanians chatting about Soviet oppression. So how difficult can it be to pick up two jamokes on the south side talking about customers of their upholstery-cleaning business?

"Let's see here ...Gunderson, Anthony and Loretta Gunderson ...draperies and chairs, draperies and chairs ...disability! He's unemployed, she's on disability."

"Great; maybe they're home now. If she's on disability, where's she gonna go?"

Technically, it's possible. But that doesn't mean everybody's doing it. For one thing, it's illegal. The Electronic Communications Protection Act of 1986 unequivocally outlawed cellular-phone eavesdropping. While other forms of radio listening--police and fire calls, CB, air-traffic control, and many more--remained untouched, sponsors of the cellular phone bill portrayed it as an extension of the federal wiretap law, preventing invasions of privacy by overzealous government snoops.

Opponents of the legislation said that was a whitewash. People have been monitoring the airwaves for decades; a ban on car-phone frequencies wasn't going to stop anybody. The law's real purpose, they charged, was to enable cellular phone companies to tell customers their privacy was "assured by law."

Yeah, right. Today maybe three million Americans own some kind of scanning equipment, according to the experts. Hobbyists subscribe to magazines like Monitoring Times and Popular Communications, which are filled with information to help people monitor the airwaves--legally and otherwise.

Not that I would ever break the law. But if I did, I'd probably hear some pretty interesting conversations. (And if I wrote an article about them, I'd definitely change all the people's names.)

Maybe I'd hear something like this:

Man (emotional, with thick Italian accent): "You have to do exercises, like ten reps each. But no heavy weights. You want your arms to have that nice little form in them."

Woman: "But don't my arms look nice now?"

Man: "They do. [Long pause.] But they could be better."

Some cellular phones are portable, of course, so not all the conversations take place in cars. Perhaps I'd hear something like this:

"Jimmy, if you're there with Cindy, so help me, you better tell me."

"I'm not."

"Not what?"

"Here. With Cindy."

"There, you admitted it. God, you're stupid. You're right there in her bed, aren't you? I can practically hear her. Is she sitting there laughing with you, with her brand new teeth?"

"Elaine, the phone's going dead. I've got to get off."

Or this:

"Let me tell you something, Cal, and you're not going to believe this. You remember my friend Agnes?"

"Eighty-year-old woman?"

"Eighty-four. Last week she came up HIV positive. I was in tears."

Or this:

"I said 'Are they looking for somebody over there?' She said 'Yeah,' and I said 'What position are they looking to fill?' She took one look at my application and she said 'Anything.' Now they want to make me office manager."

Or this:

"I'm leaving the downtown area right now."

"We just had grill cheese."

"Oh, peanut butter and jelly is fine with me."

"Really? You want grill cheese?"

"No. Peanut butter and jelly is fine."

Not all cellular-phone conversations, I suppose, would be fascinating. There would be plenty of dull, empty jabbering that would make you wonder why people bothered using a telephone to say it in the first place. On the other hand, some of the stuff might be so hot you'd be amazed that people could risk "broadcasting" it over the airwaves.

Anyway, next time I leave a message on somebody's answering machine or voice-mail system, I'm going to think about this scenario: The person I'm calling is on his way home, in his car, and he calls in for his messages. He listens to my message, which includes my Visa card number, my phone number, and details about my sex life. At the same time he's listening, so is some yimp-yacker sitting in his bedroom with a $300 scanner.

Imagine the consequences.

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