Online radio scanners

Radio scanners have been around for a long time. They basically allow people to listen in on radio conversations. Most radios have a scan function of some sort. When I got my first radio I could even use the scan function to listen to the early mobile phone (pre-digital) conversations. They weren’t very interesting.

Listening in to any radio broadcast is not actually illegal in Canada. The airwaves are considered a public resource, and various agencies both private and public pay licensing fees to use certain frequencies. However, disclosing any information gathered through the use of a scanner is illegal. Reporters have traditionally used it to learn about a situation as it happens. They would then have to go to the site and interview someone before they could publish anything.

This brings us to a curious use of streaming audio.

I came across a site that lists several audio streams that claim to be from radio scanners throughout British Columbia. Among them are most of the Lower Mainland’s Fire & Rescue departments, police, ambulance, emergency frequencies and SAR frequencies, along with frequencies from many other regions of the province.

In the general SAR (“GSAR”) course that every volunteer in BC takes, we are taught that everything we say on the radio could be listened to. Now, with streaming audio, it’s actually possible for anyone in the world to listen in. I’m not certain that’s a good thing.

First I’m surprised that this would be considered legal. I think that a rebroadcast of a radio conversation on the internet would constitute passing on that information.

Second, as a SAR volunteer I don’t want to have to use coded or guarded language when I’m talking on the radio. We are taught to be sensitive to the families of the people we are looking for, but when we’re doing our work we need the freedom to speak freely on the conditions of the search, clues, and the subject profile which often includes information gathered by the RCMP in the course if their investigation – information such as bank and credit card use, emails, notes, journal entries and other sensitive stuff. We don’t always want the family to hear what we are discussing, but neither do we want the world to hear about the private life of their missing loved one.

Hopefully nobody is sad or bored enough to listen. Sadly, this probably isn’t the case.

I know that perversely, by writing about this I’m letting more people know that it exists. I’ve thought about it and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better that SAR members know what’s happening to their radio broadcasts, and that some reader out there might know weather this is legal or not, and let us know what we could do about it.

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3 comments on “Online radio scanners
  1. MG says:

    I'm not sure of the strict legality of rebroadcasting over streaming audio, if such a thing has even been determined by Industry Canada or the courts to date.

    It is legal to possess a scanner in Canada (, referencing the Radiocommunication Act) so one could assume it might be okay to listen via the internet. From a functional standpoint, a stream is the audio of a legal device (scanner) so likely listening to said device via the web is not illegal.

    Regarding SAR communications, your comments echo the concerns of the police and very soon all RCMP in BC will be going encrypted digital radio. This of course will make it very hard, if not impossible to scan or stream the police broadcasts.

    SAR will likely never be in a position to use digital encrypted radio, simply based on cost. We will need to continue using proper voice procedure as laid out in GSAR.

    Using coded language is technically illegal for land mobile communications, so guarded language would likely need to be used. We also find our teams in the field with mobile phones to as a method to augment our communications. Any sensitive information is requested to be phoned in if a mobile phone is usable, but sending a runner always works too depending on circumstances of course. A several thousand year old technology that still works.

  2. MG says:

    This page seems to at least address the issue:

    it states: "it can be argued that internet scanners are not "intercepting and divulging", but rather converting from publicly accessible analog airwaves to digital via the Internet."

    It will be open to interpretation until Industry Canada catches up to the technology and writes a solid regulation one way or the other.

    I guess we just couch our comms when dealing with the sensitive stuff and see what comes in the future.

  3. I understand the scanner is legal, and so is listening to it. However, use of the information is not legal — thus setting up a scanner-to-internet bridge would be a retransmission. I think it's in shaky grounds.

    Your points about using mobile or a runner as backup are good ones; also part of our standard procedures.

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