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Cellular Phones, Do You Know Who's Listening?
By Douglas Knisely, CPP, PPS (Class 25)

The cellular telephone business is a growing industry. Today, you can get cellular coverage virtually anywhere in the country. Cellular phones are being used by individuals and businesses alike. There are on the order of 10 million users nationwide.

The push is on by cellular companies to place a phone in every vehicle. These companies tell us about the conveniences and benefits of cellular phones, but never about the security concerns associated with their use. Nothing is said about how easy it is to intercept your calls.

Companies compete by a variety of programs designed to give as much air time as possible. The more minutes of air time you get for your base rate, means increased use by subscribers. The more the phone is used, the greater the potential for harm.

Basically, a cellular phone is a receiver/transmitter which operates much like a standard telephone, except that the signal is broadcast over high frequency radio signals, rather than standard telephone lines. Your conversation is floating around for all to hear if they have the proper equipment. Both sides of the conversation will be heard regardless of which party is using the cellular phone.

The enforcement section of wiretapping and electronic surveillance laws makes enforcement against those listening to cellular phone calls very difficult, if not impossible. It has to be proven that a person intentionally intercepted or endeavored to intercept any wire, electronic or oral communication.

Having laws in place to prosecute offenders, doesn't ensure your privacy. Eavesdropping on cellular phone calls is as easy as programming a police/fire scanner. Anyone who purchases a scanner that can pick up the 800mhz frequencies can listen in. You can purchase a scanner for as little as $200.

Some companies go to great lengths to develop physical security programs that identify and secure confidential material. In fact, being able to show you took reasonable measures to identify and secure your material is essential in cases that involve trade secret information.

What good is it if we go to great lengths to secure our confidential material, if we're going to then broadcast it over the airwaves?

Users of cellular phones should be careful when discussing information such as: customer names; quotes; medical and personal information; grievances; travel plans; itineraries; or any other information that could be damaging if gotten into the wrong ears.

When developing or upgrading a security program, be sure to add cellular phones to your vulnerability and risk assessment checklist. Guidelines should be established for all cellular phone users. Guidelines should cover things such as: topics of discussion; code locking of phone to prevent usage if stolen; time limits; disclosure of cellular phone numbers, etc.

Manufacturers are anxious to get new technology into the hands of consumers as soon as possible, sometimes at the expense of security. I've seen this happen many times, especially in the communications industry. Computers, cordless phones, satellite signals, etc. are all examples of marketing considerations over-riding security concerns.

In the past, industrial spies had to take risks tapping phone lines and planting transmitters. In fact, many companies hire electronic eavesdropping specialists to sweep for transmitters. If a cellular phone is used in your conversation, they can listen-in from the comfort of their living rooms. You've eliminated the risk of spies having to commit trespass and other offenses.

Even with all the negatives, cellular telephones play an important role in everyday business. Cellular phones can be a wonderful tool if used properly. The key is to develop awareness and caution with all users.

About the Author: Douglas Knisely, CPP, PPS, is a licensed private investigator and security consultant from Bellefonte, Pa.

Copyright © 2003, Executive Protection Institute