An earful -
Cordless phones prove anything but private
N.J. - John Sullivan has been an amateur radio operator for nine of his 17
years, but never has he heard the sort of talk that has been sputtering
across his wires in the last three months.
He has heard stockbrokers
advising clients about their personal finances. He
has heard wives divulge their darkest marital grievances. He has heard a
businessman lament that he invested "everything but my wife and my
children" in a risky venture.
He has heard teachers at Haddonfield High School grumbling about the
administration. He has heard drug dealers negotiate sales. He has heard
private detectives discussing an investigation. He has heard men give
their credit card numbers in return for a graphic description of their
"I guess I feel like a peeping Tom," said the high school
senior. "I guess you could say I find out more gossip than anyone in
The intimate conversations that Sullivan has overheard are not the
normal banter that clutters the ham radio bands. It is as though the
conversants were chatting privately, unaware of eavesdroppers - as though
they were talking on the telephone.
Which is exactly what they were doing.
Welcome to 1984, when millions of Americans unwittingly are exposing
their souls to their neighbors by using cordless telephones.
Consumer groups and government officials are beginning to understand a
phenomenon that some amateur radio operators discovered long ago - the
highly popular cordless telephones are filling the airwaves with private
conversations, privy to any of the country's 400,000 licensed ham radio
operators, as well as numerous other users of less sophisticated
"It's very dangerous," Sullivan said recently. "Some of
this would be very damaging if it were in the wrong hands. Somebody
without any values could really exploit this."
Amateur radio operators call the eavesdropping "legal
wiretapping," because it is legal to listen to the conversations -
but not to record them. Because of "electrical propagation," the
radio signals transmitted by cordless phones are broadcast farther than
the few hundred feet that phone manufacturers specify. Electrical wiring
in a house can act as an antenna, boosting the telephone's signal beyond
From the radio in the third-floor room of his parents' home near the
center of this borough, Sullivan said, he has overheard thousands of
conversations from all sections of Haddonfield's 2.2 square miles, where
12,337 people live.
Under optimal broadcasting conditions, Sullivan said, he has overheard
telephone calls made from homes two miles away - from each of the
surrounding communities of Cherry Hill, Barrington, Haddon Heights,
Westmont and Audubon.
A representative of the telephone manufacturers, though, said the range
of Sullivan's reception was "a fluke."
"It's like anything else on the radio; you can probably listen to
it," said Peter Bennett, vice president of the telecommunications
group of the Electronic Industries Association.
"In terms of picking them up for miles and miles, I frankly don't
believe that," said Bennett. "I would doubt very much if this
kid in Haddonfield is hearing thousands."
But Victor Misek, a Hudson, N.H., engineer who manufactures an antenna
system for ham radio operators, said he, too, has overheard phone calls
that emanated from Nashua, three miles away. "I've heard reports from
some radio amateurs that have heard them as far as 10 miles away," he
"These people are oblivious to the fact that they're broadcasting
all over the place," said Misek. "It's really quite sad, because
they might be giving away personal information. . . . A person is left
open to that."
The Federal Communications Commission, which governs the use of
cordless phones, does not require phone manufacturers to inform consumers
that their calls could be broadcast to anyone listening.
"Always assume your cordless phone is being 'tapped,' " said
Sam Simon, director of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center,
a Washington, D.C., consumer group. "I think consumers are basically
uninformed of that."
According to industry estimates, as many as 9 million cordless phones
have been produced for U.S. sales. The frequencies the government has
assigned to the phones are sandwiched between the bands used by AM radio
stations and those assigned to amateur radio operators - slightly higher
than an AM radio dial's upper limit of 1600 kilohertz.
"The frequencies (assigned to cordless phones) are adjacent to an
amateur band," said Julius P. Knapp, an electronic engineer in the
FCC's radio frequency devices branch, "so anybody with an amateur
radio can pick them up."
An incident in Rhode Island several months ago illustrates the
potential for private phone conversations to become part of the public
domain. In December, police in Woonsocket, R.I., arrested a group of drug
dealers after intercepting their cordless telephone conversations. The
police had been tipped off by a neighbor, who inadvertently overheard the
calls on a conventional AM radio.
Sullivan, an honors student and editor of the Haddonfield High School
yearbook, was at first fascinated with eavesdropping after another radio
amateur told him in December about the unintentional broadcasts.
Gradually, he said, the realization of the potential danger overcame the
novelty of aural voyeurism.
"I would hear people say they were leaving the house, or I would
hear them call a baby sitter," he said. "I knew when nobody was
at home. I could easily break in, if I were a burglar. And then, so often
you hear people talking about their businesses. . . . There must be 250
lawyers that have offices in Haddonfield, and a lot of them use cordless
He said he could identify about 40 percent of the callers he overheard
from their voices - "this is a small town and I know a lot of
people" - or because they would commonly reveal their names or phone
numbers during the conversations.
So he began telephoning some of his neighbors who used the cordless
phones, telling them that he had intercepted their calls. "When I
talk to someone," he said, "I try to tell them how dangerous it
Misek, too, said he had intercepted phone calls that were errantly
broadcast in the amateur radio bands.
One cordless phone manufacturer, he said, mistakenly produced thousands
of phones that used a ham radio frequency. Misek said he would tune his
transmitter to the intruding caller's frequency and interrupt the
conversation. He explained the problem to callers, instructing them to
return their phones to the store.
"Sometimes they're quite shocked when you do that," said
Misek. "I listened in one morning to a guy on the phone calling his
bank. He gave his name and account number and wanted to know the balance
in his account. So I interrupted, 'Hmmm, that's an interesting account
number.' And before I could explain to him that his call was being
broadcast, he hung up."
Sullivan, who speaks in a rapid stream of words that he has adopted
from years of radio chattering, also said he occasionally interrupted
callers whom he could not identify. He considers it a public service.
Sometimes, the startled callers do not.
"You get different reactions," he said. "There was one
lady I talked to the other night. She was really angry. She said, 'Have
you read 1984?' And I said, 'Sure, I had to read it in school.' And she
said, 'This is just like Big Brother.' And then she drew an analogy that
this was like Watergate. Most of the people, though, seem to appreciate
One of his appreciative neighbors was Earl Cooley, who lives about a
block from Sullivan.
"I'm glad he told me about this, because I briefed my
family," he said. "At the time I bought the phone, I wasn't
aware that this type of situation could come up. I was very surprised when
Mr. Sullivan called me.
"I'll tell you," he said, "I don't use that phone now
when I call about anything to do with business, or when I'm going out of
Cooley said he had believed his phone calls could not be overheard. His
phone, like most of those now being sold, is equipped with a device that
is designed to prevent "pirating" - the unauthorized use of
private telephone lines by marauders who drive around with cordless
phones, hoping to pick up somebody else's dial tone. But the device does
not prevent eavesdropping.
"You are essentially using a radio, and almost none of the phones
is equipped with an encryption device," said the FCC's Knapp. An
encryption device, such as a voice "scrambler," cloaks the radio
signals with static, thwarting most eavesdroppers.
Only one telephone manufacturer sells a cordless phone equipped with a
voice scrambler, and it costs substantially more than other models.
Amateur radio operators, though, said it does not take an electronic
wizard to create a device to decode the scrambled signals. "Anything
the telephone company can put out, we can match it," said Sullivan.
FCC officials said that amateur radio operators would not be able to
receive calls from the new generation of cordless telephones that is now
being developed, because those phones will use high-frequency signals. But
those signals are similar to the ones used by law enforcement radio bands.
So anyone listening to a conventional police scanner, officials said,
might be able to overhear calls made on the new generation of phones.
"The manufacturers," said Misek, "should be required to
put out a little booklet to the (people) who buy these things, which tell
them you have no privacy whatsoever.
"Everybody's baring their guts out to the community," he
said. "It's colossal, really. It's ridiculous. And most of these
people are oblivious to this."
Said the FCC's Knapp: "I don't know how far the commission can go
to educate people."
Even so, he said cordless telephone conversations probably always will
be easy prey for eavesdroppers, despite the changes in frequencies and
despite the advent of devices to scramble radio signals.
"Obviously," he said, "if somebody is trying to pick
these up, they can do it without a great deal of difficulty."
the precocious student, grew up to become a lawyer and work in the