Phone call snoopers to face probe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 1993, 12:00am

SNOOPERS who scan mobile telephone conversations will be targeted in an investigation into surveillance laws by the Law Reform Commission.

The investigation, due to start within two months, will concentrate on looking at whether laws are adequate to deal with the rapid advance of surveillance technology, according to Mr Con Conway, a member of the privacy sub-committee of the commission.

''At the moment, people are not allowed to scan mobile phone conversations,'' said Mr Conway, who is also president of the private sector Information Technology Federation.

He said it was legal to sell the radio scanning equipment that allows people to listen to cellular phone calls.

The sub-committee would be examining whether it would be advisable to introduce stiffer penalties for illegal eavesdropping.

At the moment the maximum penalty for using radio communication apparatus is a $5,000 fine and two years' imprisonment.

A Post Office spokesman said: ''It is extremely hard to catch anybody red-handed. It is not illegal to sell the scanners; they can be used legally, and are popular with tourists. We don't want to interfere with the tourist industry.'' A range of scanners and receivers is available in electrical stores throughout Hongkong, some for as little as $1,000.

When the South China Morning Post visited six electronics shops in Tsim Sha Tsui four had scanners in stock, and the other two could arrange to get a scanner within a few minutes.

None of the salesmen warned that use of the scanners was illegal in Hongkong, and all encouraged potential buyers to try to listen in to conversations on Nathan Road to test out the equipment.

The secretary of the privacy sub-committee, Mr Mark Berthold, said it could be several years before the committee's recommendations on comprehensive privacy laws came into effect.

But technological advances could mean that the days when a scanner operator could casually record intimate chats between members of the royal family would be over within a much shorter period.

With a new digital switching system rapidly replacing the current analogue system it will be ''nearly impossible'' for would-be snoopers to listen in, mobile phone companies have claimed.

''By 1996, everyone in Hongkong should be on a digital system. It is clearer, it is inherently more private and there is spare capacity,'' said Mr Brad Horwitz, director of new business for McCaw Cellular.

The Post Office spokesman said digital technology would make mobile scanners redundant.

''It would probably take a specially programmed, dedicated computer several days to work out just one of the codes. It's really the job for a professional spy, not an amateur radio operator,'' he said.