Who owns the airwaves?

Many people who learn that I’ve worked in the newspaper business for going on 24 years tend to be surprised...

Many people who learn that I’ve worked in the newspaper business for going on 24 years tend to be surprised that I have great respect for privacy.

It’s not easy sometimes doing certain assignments in this business. Years ago I had to write a news story about an 11 year old boy who was killed during a minor hockey practice. I had to phone his parents as they were planning the funeral and, as the editor I worked for at the time put it, “find out how they feel.” Not an easy job. I understand and sympathize with people who value their privacy.

When I was working at the Macleod Gazette in 1999 a reader called me and asked if I would help her. She had recently began divorce proceedings with her soon-to-be ex-husband, and had been, only a few nights before, discussing the issue with her sister on the phone. All the phones in her house were cordless phones, by the way.

The morning after this conversation the lady was walking out to her vehicle when a neighbour who lived a few houses down hailed her and began asking her about her impending divorce. Who was to blame, was infidelity involved, who was getting the house and where were the kids going included some of the questions asked. My reader was understandably shocked. No one other than her sister and husband knew about the divorce proceedings.

The eavesdropping fellow had a reputation around town as a creep, and it was also known he had spent money to buy some high-end police scanning equipment…so high-end the equipment not only picked up police radios, it also picked up nearby cordless phones.

So I decided to do a story about this issue, which required some investigation. I contacted the RCMP and they didn’t know much about someone using scanners to eavesdrop on someone’s private conversation.

I’m a pretty fair detective, so I slowly but surely discovered that (as of 1999) Industry Canada is responsible for the airwaves we use everyday to communicate, whether it’s cordless phones, cell phones etc.

I spoke with a communications person at Industry Canada and the issue of eavesdropping on cordless phone conversations was explained. The citizens of Canada own the airwaves which surround us, and that’s why scanners are legal. It’s okay to buy a scanner and use it to listen to the airwaves and anything that’s being carried on the airwaves, especially public transmissions like police, fire and ambulance.

However, it’s been determined in previous court cases that, although the airwaves are fair game, whatever private content you happen to intercept on those airwaves is not fair game; for example, a lady discussing her divorce with a family member, totally unaware that someone in the neighbourhood is eavesdropping. Apparently, this issue came to the forefront in the 1990’s with the emergence of affordable cellular phones and an issue in British Columbia where an elected official was in an inappropriate relationship with a journalist, and yet another journalist was eavesdropping on their lovey-dovey conversations.

An eavesdropper like the Fort Macleod creep may intercept the private conversation, but he or she can never record or repeat anything they hear unless they have the permission of someone who was involved in the conversation. If they ignore that rule, they’re in violation of Criminal Code 184 (1)… “Every one who, by means of any electro-magnetic, acoustic, mechanical or other device, willfully intercepts a private communication is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.”

Whether the Fort Macleod creep got a lecture from the police, I don’t know. But a quality community newspaper is pretty widely read, and I heard through the grapevine the story had an effect on him.

Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.

 

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