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House passes bill to criminalize call monitoring

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  1. Libel and Privacy
WASHINGTON D.C.--In a nearly unanimous roll call vote, members of Congress voted February 25 to enact legislation aimed at outlawing…

WASHINGTON D.C.–In a nearly unanimous roll call vote, members of Congress voted February 25 to enact legislation aimed at outlawing third party interception and publication of private cellular, digital or PCS communications. Some hand radio operators have expressed concern that the bill could outlaw the use of scanning devices for legitimate business purposes.

Representatives voted 404-3 to pass the Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act (H.R. 514) introduced by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and designed to prevent the “purposeful eavesdropping on private cellular calls by scanners that have been illegally modified.” The bill will now move to the Senate for consideration.

The legislation amends the Communications Act of 1934 to outlaw the modification of over-the-counter scanners to intercept cellular communications. The Communications Act already prohibits the manufacture of scanners that would pick up cellular and digital phone calls directly.

Wilson said the bill will not inhibit legitimate, law-abiding users, such as journalists, radio hobbyists and volunteer fire fighters, from monitoring emergency and radio transmissions. Her stated concern is the third party interception of private cellular phone calls.

“This bill makes sure that analog and digital calls will be protected,” Wilson said in an office press release.

The bill passed the House after being amended once. The amendment, proposed by Wilson, would create liability only for those who knowingly and intentionally divulge intercepted information. The amendment could protect journalists if they receive and publish tapes or transcripts of illegally recorded calls, as long as they did not know the tapes were made illegally.

Wilson legislative assistant Luke Rose said the amendment would cover situations such as the 1996 incident where a taped conversation of a conference call involving Newt Gingrich was leaked to the press. A number of House Republicans were upset that the Justice Department did not bring criminal charges against Rep. James McDermott (D-Wash), who disclosed the tape to The New York Times.

Kevin Goldberg, an attorney representing the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said he does not foresee the bill hampering the ability of news organizations to utilize scanners to monitor events. He said a broader bill (H.R 2369) that was introduced, but failed in the last session, could have banned the use of scanners for legitimate business purposes including newsroom monitoring of emergencies. However, he did not anticipate the same problems with this legislation. (H.R. 514)