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Scanners Pick Up Party Line Used by Not-So-Private Cellular Phones

February 23, 1986|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

You've finally joined that elite group of men and women who do business out of their cars via cellular telephone, the latest high-priced advance in mobile conversation.

Here you are, stuck in rush-hour freeway traffic, calling your spouse to say you'll be late for dinner, and then calling the office to check on activities there. Perhaps you exchange a little sweet talk or business gossip with your secretary.

A few words of advice: Be careful. Someone may be listening.

Cellular phones may look and feel like private phones, but their conversations are beamed over the same kind of radio waves that carry police and fire communications. Hence anybody with an ordinary radio scanning device may stumble onto your most intimate business or personal chats.

Companies that sell and broadcast the signals of cellular telephones insist that such interceptions are highly unlikely because of the technology used in the complex process. Ask a typical salesman if there is any such risk and he'll probably shake his head and answer, "This is a private line."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 1986 Orange County Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in the Feb. 23 editions of The Times about concerns over the privacy of mobile cellular telephones described calls that were intercepted by a Monrovia man using a radio scanner. While some scanners can randomly intercept high-frequency cellular telephone calls, the intercepted calls in the story were made from conventional radio telephone car phones, not from cellular models.

All of which brings a soft smile from John Hennesey.

Hennesey, 76, is a retired medical instrument company purchasing agent who lives in a small apartment in Monrovia and amuses himself by scanning radio channels that are reserved for cellular telephone transmissions.

"It's like a soap opera without pictures," he said.

Personal Calls

Sitting at his kitchen table on a recent afternoon, Hennesey scanned a dozen or so cellular channels and encountered a typically mundane collection of business calls--salesmen keeping track of fuel costs, businessmen revising their slide projection displays, doctors confirming surgery appointments.

But with surprising regularity he also came across fragments of personal telephone calls in which it was obvious that neither party had any idea that someone might be listening. There was none of the sense of audience that often permeates chatter on citizens band radio channels.

Instead, there was the salesman comforting the receptionist as she bemoaned her divorce. ("He gets extremely erratic," she said of her husband. "There are times he can cut through you like a knife.")

There was the pending cocaine deal. ("Bring it half rock, half powder," one of the parties advised the other.)

There were downright sleazy admissions. ("This is a lady I used to fool around with and her husband," said one salesman, outlining two prospective clients. "Her husband likes me now, too.")

And there was everyday celebration. ("The bris was wonderful," said a woman, describing the Jewish circumcision ritual. "Everyone had a wonderful time--except for the baby. It must hurt.")

Not exactly "Dynasty," but for a man with health problems who lost his wife of 54 years last June and whose immediate family lives in Dallas, it breaks up the day.

It was only by accident, after his grandson sent him the scanner last Christmas, that Hennesey stumbled upon one channel reserved for cellular phones. Last week, the grandson, Marion Reily, an admitted gadget nut, visited Hennesey and programmed the scanner to jump from one cellular channel to another.

New on the Market

Cellular phones, whose calls are routed through a network of transmission stations that each serve a radius of less than 10 miles, were developed about 15 years ago by Bell Laboratories but have been available to consumers for only about two years.

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