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Wired News
Friday, June 25, 1999
12:25pm, PDT

Private lives laid bare on Net

A hacker is intercepting personal calls made over analog cell phones, then streaming them onto the Net, where anyone can listen in. If he's caught, he could face some serious jail time.

by James Glave, james@wired.com

Voices drift through the ether, over cell phones, from somewhere in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In a heavy working-class Canadian accent, a man says good morning to his girlfriend, who is half asleep. She asks him if there's any coffee left.

Neither is aware that a hacker known only as DwC is capturing their words with a Bearcat BC200XLT scanner, and netcasting their intimate chat live onto the Internet with Shoutcast, a streaming MP3 service.

"I think it is an intrusion", said David Jones, director of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that seeks to preserve free expression and privacy in the digital age.

Because the man and his girlfriend are using older cellular phones that transmit over radio frequencies without encryption, the conversation can be easily intercepted. Normally such calls can only be heard by someone using a modified scanner, but DwC has taken their conversations to a wider audience all over the world.

"[The callers] are using out-of-date technology [and the hacker is] broadcasting it like a radio program", said Jones. "But it is not a radio program. It is a private conversation."

And that could land the anonymous netcaster in jail.

Section 184.5 of the Criminal Code of Canada states that anyone found guilty of intercepting cellular phone calls "maliciously or for gain" can be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison.

Jones said that while Section 183 says that calls made on analog cell phones, or via "radio-based telephone communication" are not considered a "private communication", DwC may still be violating the law under Section 184.5 by using the intercepted conversations maliciously.

Neither the Vancouver Police Department nor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could be reached for comment. British Columbia has an Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, but that department only oversees the privacy of public bodies, and not individuals.

AOL deleted the cellphone Shoutcast channel on Friday.

"We removed the listing from the directory", said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "When something [like this] comes to our attention we want to act responsibly and swifty to remove it if we think that is appropriate. In this case, we did."

The conversations are private, but mundane -- DwC's digital sieve catches the tedium of everyday life. One person gripes about why his insurance won't cover stolen scuba gear. A man on his way to work chats with his sleepy girlfriend. Then there are restaurant reservations, drug deals, someone complaining about her bowel obstruction.

Some are intimate, others are disturbing.

"He was having financial problems and he hung himself in his garage yesterday", said one voice.

"How old was he?"

"Fortyish."

While the chatter runs in the background, a group of streaming MP3 enthusiasts listens in on an Internet Relay Chat channel.

The cyber peanut gallery at times creates a bizarre interplay between reality and the group of technically sophisticated voyeurs. As a woman on a technical support cell call coaches a friend on how to plug in her keyboard, the voyeurs in the channel chime in with their own smart-aleck advice. Only they can hear it.

One young audiophile said he couldn't resist the voyeuristic thrill.

"I think he's trying to prove that we can't be ignorant to the people listening to the scanners", said the chatter, who described himself as an 18-year-old high school student from Toronto.

"It's like it's in the air: You can't stop the waves from going through your body; why not listen to it?"

For David Jones, the answer is to junk analog cell phones in favor of more secure digital PCS phones.

"We should all have digital cell phones that have strong crypto. It wouldn't matter if we are broadcasting encrypted voice because it would be indecipherable.

"Strong crypto keeps out the cops, it keeps out the reporters, and it keeps out this punk in Vancouver who is getting his jollies."


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Copyright © 1999 by Wired Digital, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.