Radio interception

10 November 2017

Anyone who intentionally and without the necessary authorisation intercepts any communications in the UK may be committing a criminal offence.

This guidance sets out our position relating to the reception of radio transmissions by unauthorised persons or groups.

General radio reception and radio scanners

Generally, the use of radio receivers is exempt from requiring a licence unless it is also capable of transmission. It is lawful to place compliant radio receivers on the market in the UK.

A radio scanner is a radio receiver that can automatically tune, or scan, two or more discrete frequencies. It may stop scanning when it detects an ongoing transmission and continue to scan when the transmissions on that frequency stop. Generally, scanners cover the non-broadcast radio bands between 30 and 951 MHz using FM, although there are scanners that receive on other parts of the radio spectrum and use other modulation types including voice, video or data transmissions.

Typically, receivers and scanners can only be used for ‘general reception’ such as licensed broadcasting stations and hobby radio.

Ofcom cannot provide specific guidance on legal issues associated with the use of receiving apparatus and, when in doubt, it is recommended that specific legal advice is obtained.

Unauthorised reception

There are two criminal offences relating to unauthorised reception: interception and disclosure. See section 48 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006.

Interception

It is an offence for an unauthorised person to use wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the contents, sender or addressee of any message whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not, of which neither the person using the apparatus nor a person on whose behalf he is acting is an intended recipient.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016, allows for a number of different organisations to carry out interception of communications and other forms of monitoring.

Disclosure

It is an offence for someone, otherwise than under the authority of a designated person, to disclose any information as to the contents, sender or addressee of any message referred to above. However, this does not apply where the disclosure is in the course of legal proceedings or for the purpose of any report of those proceedings. Furthermore, it does not apply where the information would have come to the person’s knowledge without the use of wireless telegraphy apparatus by the person or by anyone else.

This means that it is illegal to disclose to a third party anything heard in a transmission that a person has listened to without authorisation.

Frequently asked questions

Am I breaking the law by owning a scanner?

No, but you should not use one to listen to frequencies other than general reception transmissions.

Do I need a licence to use a scanner?

No, there is no scanner licence.

Could I get authority to listen to emergency service transmissions, for example?

No, this can only be done by people acting under statutory authority. If you wish to listen in to messages, you should obtain the permission of the person sending them.

Isn't it all right to listen as long as I don't pass on what I hear?

No, using radio equipment to listen in is an offence, regardless of whether the information is passed on.

Isn't this all a bit heavy?

No. No-one likes their private or business conversations to be listened to. Parliament has passed these laws to protect the privacy of radio users.