Eavesdropping with Scanner
Who doesn’t like listening in to a conversation being held by two people nearby? Who doesn’t take secret delight in overhearing a snippet of information being mouthed from across the room? Anyone who has enjoyed monitoring local police, fire and utility frequencies, and even cell phone conversations before they were encrypted knows the secret pleasure that comes from electronic eavesdropping. Scanner radios, SDRs and even the humble Baofeng can offer the discrete listener hours of aural voyeurism. Radio traffic picked up during these sessions of signal intelligence and information gathering can be recorded with ease via a simple setup; and what is received and recorded may be transformed and put to artistic purposes.
This is exactly the method used by Robin Rimbaud, a British electronic musician born in 1964 who works under the name Scanner because of his use of the device in his early live performances and recordings. Tapping the airwaves, he mixed the indeterminate radio and cell phone signals into the electronica he was making, and by doing so found himself a name.
What is being picked up on the scanner will always be something evocative of the time and place where the frequencies were scanned. It is site specific. It is time specific. The people on the other end don’t necessarily know they are being listened to. They didn’t consent to be eavesdropped on, except by pressing the push to talk button. They didn’t sign a waiver allowing their voices to be recorded, mixed with music, and preserved for posterity on vinyl and CD. Robin Rimbaud, as Scanner wasn’t interested in getting their permission. What he was interested in was avant-garde literature, cinema and music. While earning a degree in Modern Arts at Kingston University in Surrey, England he formed the music group The Rimbaud Brothers with another bloke named Tony Rimbaud who was also a student (though they weren’t actually related). They started releasing cassette tapes in the early 80’s, and later turned into a trio when Chris Staley joined up, becoming Dau Al Set.
These cassette tapes were to prove important. The Peyrere compilation tape he put out in 1986 featured the work of Nurse with Wound, Derek Jarman, Current 93, Coil and Test Dept, cinching his alignment with the British experimental music scene. All these tapes prepared him for his work as curator of the Ash International record label, a subsidiary label of Touch Music out of London. His first debut as Scanner was released on Ash International in 1992.
This first self-titled Scanner album contains just under an hour of intercepted cell phone conversations of unsuspecting callers captured by his police scanner. As such, some of the material Robin Rimbaud picked up and put to record is enough to make you blush. I confess that when I first heard of police scanners as a thirteen year old skateboarding punk rocker the idea of being able to listen in to a juicy cell phone call was an exciting prospect. As was the idea of being able to hear the cops come bust us for skating at a certain site on the radio and leave before they got there.
Robin Rimbaud got into scanning on accident. He says, “As for the scanner device itself, it was purely by chance that I discovered it, since a friend was part of a hunt saboteur group and they would use it to listen in to the local police,” Rimbaud said. “I immediately saw the potential and intrigue of being able to access these private spaces and incorporate them into these exploratory soundscapes I was producing at the time. I was especially drawn to the fact that the recordings were so intimate, so clear, yet abstract in nature. One had to imagine who these people were you [are] overhearing, where they were, what kinds of lives they led, although the nature of their conversations often clearly explained this! So I began using these live voices and recordings inside the music I was producing and adopted the name of the machine I was using to create the work.”
The window of opportunity for tapping into this telephonic underworld was short-lived however. Back in the day when those rigs were analog the ability to sit on the freqs used by the telcos was a built in feature. Now it is illegal to monitor cell calls (unless you happen to work for the NSA). The companies making the scanners were under fire from the telcos. The telcos were putting pressure on Congress. So when the bill was sent up to Capitol Hill a new law was passed prohibiting scanners sold after a specified date from receiving the frequencies allocated to the Cellular Radio Service. Later an amendment was added to make it illegal to modify radios to receive those frequencies. There are Canadian and European unblocked versions available, but it is illegal to bring them into the U.S. Does that mean it is illegal to build your own scanner radio that can pick up cell calls…? Well, all that’s moved to digital now anyways and would be difficult to pick up (unless you happen to work for the NSA).
What about cordless landline phones? Frequencies used by early cordless phones at 43.720–44.480 MHz, 46.610–46.930 MHz, and 902.000–906.000 MHz are still around in some people’s homes and might be picked up by scanners but it’s still illegal to do so. And with all these scanners around most cordless phone makers moved their sets up to 2.4 GHz systems that make use of spread-spectrum modes which adds another layer of security.
The idea of listening in to what others consider private conversations brings us into the realm of ethics. Are radio listeners being nosey, butting their heads where they don’t belong? I think it is a mistaken notion that radio communication privacy can be achieved by declaring certain radio transmissions illegal to monitor and banning radio receivers capable of receiving ‘prohibited’ transmissions. This belief is rooted in a common misconception about the public nature of radio waves themselves. Courts have held that there is no privacy implied while transmitting on the public airwaves. To really eavesdrop in the smartphone centric world of today it might be better to be able to intercept text messages; hypothetically speaking of course. Texting isn’t my favorite thing, so why anyone (other than the NSA) would want to read a bunch of emoji’s is beyond me, lol.
Yet I do understand the desire to listen in, to gather intelligence, and to monitor, to eavesdrop. It can be exciting. Some of what you can grab off the air is just plain mind boggling. Robin Rimbaud understands this as well. He continued to release music on the Ash Interntational label, working closely with Mike Harding of Touch on the first dozen releases. These included Scanner², Mass Observation, Blind, and Runaway Train. [Some of these can be listened to on the artist’s bandcamp site: https://scanner.bandcamp.com/]
All have their merits but this last recording is a real gem, and was already famous when it was in circulation among railway operators before it got released to the experimental music crowd. The Runaway Train album consists of the unedited, un-doctored real-time recording of the radio contact between Alfie, controller of the railway line in New Brunswick, Canada and the engineer Wesley, on March 9, 1948, as the engineer lost control of his train to its ultimate derailment. This entire drama was taped as it happened and is insane with tension. While his colleagues work calmly and professionally to prevent a derailment, Wesley bravely remains on board. 55mph becomes 70mph. The dialogue between Wesley, and Alfie, grows charged as each minute passes. As the train hurtles on threatening the unsuspecting communities it passes through, as well as its crew. At 95mph, with a doctor and ambulance standing by, Wesley faces disaster. Suddenly the line goes dead. Can Wesley survive?
This tape had been circulating among CN and VIA Rail employees and a copy eventually reached the father of a man named Brian Damage. Brian got the tape from his dad and shared it with his friend Robin Rimbaud who was looking for unusual field recordings to put out on his Ash International label. Ash released it in 1994 (Ash 1.9) as a one-sided record in an edition of 500 copies, with an additional 500 pressed the following year. [You can listen to this one yourself on bandcamp at: https://phycus1.bandcamp.com/album/runaway-train]
Listening to this recording now, over seventy years after it was first captured off the radio is still a dramatic edge-of-your-seat listen. On a psychological level, it showcases the way humans are predisposed to focus in on the tragedy of others, to tell stories of death, demise, and destruction. Just the other day at the time of this writing I turned on my radio to see what traffic I could catch from local police and fire departments after a plane crashed into a home in Madeira. The same thing is at work when I slow down to look at an accident while driving. Our radios and scanners simply extend the reach of our observation. The allow us to listen in to the drama of human life as it unravels around us in real time.
The weird thing is that for the people involved the tragedy continues long after our scanners are turned off. In the case of train engineer Wesley, even though he walked away from the accident with his life intact, his 43 year career was over, and the pension that had been promised him was in limbo. The whole aftermath of his story was documented in the press and collected by Daniel Dawdy on the webpage: http://www.cwrr.com/Lounge/Feature/runaway
Now that I’m not reasoning like a teenager anymore my motivations for monitoring radio frequencies are different. It isn’t to evade the police. For one, cops and skaters get along better these days and there are designated spots where it is legit to have a street session. For another it’s fascinating to learn how radio traffic is handled during small and large emergencies. As a ham learning how to communicate clearly on the air is a skill that could come in handy if ever my skills are needed for the greater good of the community. Listening in is one way to develop that skill.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.