Playing Telephone

In a society of voyeurs, eavesdropping is an art

Scanner knows what to listen for. Around 30 MHz, you get baby-monitor intercoms. At 36 MHz, the headset of the McDonald's drive-through attendant. At 88 to 108 MHz, FM radio. Way up at 1429 MHz, you'll hear the barely audible static of earth-to-satellite transmissions. And at 806 to 893 MHz— the FCC-allocated radio spectrum for mobile and cellular telephones— comes unrequited love. Drug deals. The smallest talk imaginable. At 806 MHz, you start to get sweet, unprofessional us.

If you're working the phones in those frequencies, you should know you have an audience. Brit electronic artist Robin Rimbaud, known as the sonic voyeur Scanner, makes music threaded with voices from live cellular and cordless conversations. During his polished drum'n'bass performances, Rimbaud extends the antenna on a handheld Lowe AR800E scanner, tools with the dial, and begins the broadcast. Technically speaking, he gets only half the conversation (because receivers and transmitters go out on different signals), and the consistency can be spotty. But what he gets is outright transfixing.

Scanner has captured cellular coitus and criminal activity, which get the most attention. But the stream of banalities is by far the most hypnotic. At his February 13 headline show at the Knitting Factory, Scanner caught a woman chatting with a friend, repeating in an unthinking loop, "That's pretty cool. . . . Wow. . . . That's pretty cool. Huh." Then, just when you thought she'd be done, again came, "That's pretty cool." It would have been easier to laugh at her if we didn't all do the same damn thing. Instead, it was chilling. By isolating one side of the exchange, you're left hanging with the repeating code of all conversations.

Scanner mans the (un)wires at Knitting Factory.
Hiroyuki Ito
Scanner mans the (un)wires at Knitting Factory.

The self-effacing Rimbaud, who has collaborated with Derek Jarman and Brian Eno and counts vanguard composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as an admirer, considers his act a meditation on privacy. "It's 1999— what do private and public mean?" he asks. "In Japan, they don't have a word for 'private space.' " (The Japanese often use the English word privacy.) He works strictly with compact, battery-powered equipment: a DAT tape machine, sampler, compact keyboard he plays with a pen, and, he stresses, no computer. "I hate them because they never work when you perform live." (For the record, he doesn't own a cell phone.) He says the eavesdropping "pulls the music back to reality and real situations," in counterpoint to the precise, disembodied sheen of his scores. Those real situations can unfold in a handful of words. At one point in "Heidi," a track from his most recent (1997) release, Delivery (Rawkus), a man intones, "Look Heidi, you don't understand. . . . I love you. I don't care how many men you've slept with, Heidi, as long as you sleep with me still."

With material this good, Rimbaud isn't the only one tuning in. San Diego scanner artist The Spacewürm has yet to record an album of his live tapings, but he has a book of the transcripts, titled I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism, due out in April from the New York publishing company Incommunicado. In one episode, he captures a woman confessing to having sex in a public bathroom with her boyfriend: "I bent over the sink, and he went . . . and had his fun," she says. (A shame she didn't leave the cell phone on for that.) "And you know what, people were watching us, the people in the stalls. . . . "

But Scanner and The Spacewürm represent only the most outlandish edge of a varied scene. Radio frequencies have legions of online aficionados as well, congregating in newsgroups and amateur "scanner nets"— live communities of listeners tuned to the same frequency. The vast majority listens to the legal fire and police frequencies, says Charles Hargrove, a computer consultant in the city who hosts a scanner net at 147.360 MHz every Wednesday night at 8. "Listening to cell-phone conversations is boring," he says. "How many times can you hear a guy asking his wife what she wants for dinner?" Clay Irving, another scanner devotee, agrees. "It's not as titillating as the media leads people to believe."

Titillating or not, it's patently illegal— or so says Tim Ayers, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in D.C. "Scanner is doing the same thing as a phone tap— unless he's got a court order, he's breaking the law." But the federal law isn't as clear as Ayers would have you believe. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 (and later amended) made it illegal to eavesdrop on all mobile phones, but the FCC waffles a little bit in interpreting the law depending on what listeners do with the intercepted call. An FCC fact sheet spells it out: "To the extent that [telephone] conversations are radio transmissions, there would be no violation of [the law] if there were no divulgence or beneficial use of the conversation."

In their defense, other scanner voyeurs claim that because the radio spectrum is public, only digitally encrypted calls are protected. (Currently, 81 percent of cellular phones are analog and therefore intelligible to scanners. The other 19 percent are digital PCS systems that are translated into ones and zeros when they hit the air.) The logic follows that if you're using an analog phone, you're effectively shouting into a crowded room. Marc Rotenberg at the Electronic Privacy Information Center has called cellular phone conversations "open postcards." According to Jim Prine, a police officer and scanner hobbyist in New Orleans, the ECPA is a joke, intended to placate the cellular phone industry. "It is so badly written that even attorneys cannot understand most of its ramifications and loopholes." In defiance, he offers "Scanning Tips" for 800 MHz (www.li.net/~j4dice/ geninfo.html).

The potential legal wrinkles aren't much of a deterrent. The scanners themselves can't be bought in retail stores, but they are easy to obtain with a little resourcefulness. Irving says that it took him less than two minutes to find one on Ebay. (You can find almost anything on Ebay in three.) The standard Radio Shack model only goes up to 800 MHz and covers wavelengths on which it is legal to listen to fire and police departments and sports transmissions. According to Hargrove, older models could be modified to enable cellular interception, but the most recent models cannot.

But even if you find a scanner that can listen in on cell phones, that's only part of the problem: the feds are closing in. CTIA's Ayers points to the Wireless Privacy Protection Act currently before Congress, which attempts to make scanner modification illegal, and he promises, "It will sail through." The catch is how the feds will find passive listeners, since they don't leave a trace. Scanner and The Spacewürm, on the other hand, are easy targets. As Ayers says, "Scanner will not be hard to find if he's [selling] tickets."


Signal and Noise

My Very First Catwalk: Should people really be clapping at this? For Fashion Week, high-speed connectivity upstart RED invited the press down to the biospheres at Bryant Park to unveil its new service using the unique "beautiful young people in red clothing" motif. While video on a giant screen hammered home the company's slinky data rates (640K download, 120K upload, for $79 a month), a Sherpa, an ice climber, and an Asian waif carrying a screenplay paraded around the runway, looking suitably steely about their bandwidth issues. No computers were in sight. At least the rockin' background noise was a step up from the atmosphere vacuum at trade shows. But what strange groupthink was going on that made the audience slaver over this? After the heaps of gray shells at PC Expo and the like, I guess it's intoxicating just to see skin.

e-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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