Can you listen to cell phone calls with a scanner?

Can you listen to cell phone calls with a scanner? Can someone listen to your cell phone calls with a scanner? Depending on who you are, I have good news and bad news.

The 90s scare

Can you listen to cell phone calls with a scanner
In the 90s, it was fairly common knowledge that you could listen to phone calls with an inexpensive police scanner like this one.

In the 1990s, word got out that it was possible to listen to phone conversations with an ordinary police scanner you could buy at Radio Shack. And in those days, it was just as easy to find a Radio Shack as it was a McDonald’s or Subway. I remember my dad would rarely talk on a cordless phone because of this. I only ever saw him use one once. And he wasn’t too happy that I would use one and think nothing of it.

Oddly, although he was unwilling to talk about mundane things on a cordless phone, he thought nothing of talking about medical information on his cell phone. Cellular phones were also analog in those days. That meant it was also possible to pick up cell phone calls on a police scanner. I guess no one ever mentioned that to him.

I can remember sometime around 2005, driving around with a friend chasing trains. We’d listen to train dispatchers on his police scanner to find out where the trains would be. He drove and I ran the scanner. I locked in on some guy’s cell phone conversation. I don’t remember what he was talking about, but I remember thinking this shouldn’t still be possible. After about a minute, my friend asked me why we were listening to that, and I resumed my scanning duty.

But because it used to be possible, rumors persist that it may still be possible to listen to cell phone calls with a scanner.

The digital transition

I clung to an ancient analog cell phone long after it was cool, just because it was more reliable and it sounded better. Early digital cell phones sounded terrible. Besides, if someone wanted to listen to me walking someone through connecting tape drives to Windows servers, maybe they’d learn something. But eventually the industry moved to all-digital cellular networks because it allowed other things, like Internet on our phones. We take that for granted now.

That means it’s digital, and it’s encrypted. That means your neighbor can’t listen to your cell phone calls with a police scanner anymore. Listening to cell phone conversations is certainly possible, but it requires more expensive equipment and a much higher degree of skill than using a police scanner. Use of Stingray devices by local law enforcement is controversial because it allows them to listen to phone conversations without a search warrant. Since I work in computer security and my clients’ security issues are none of the police’s business, I try to use teleconferencing apps like Skype and Zoom to discuss sensitive information.

The biggest telltale sign of the neighborhood mad scientist trying to listen to your calls would be your mobile phone degrading to 3G or 2G or lower, which have weaker encryption that they probably can break. But this is more the stuff of theory than practicality, due to the cost involved.

There are still some parts of the phone network that sometimes get converted to analog and transmitted, so a nosy neighbor with a police scanner can still pick up parts of calls occasionally. But there’s no specific way for a nosy neighbor with a scanner to target you precisely.

Can you listen to cell phone calls with a scanner: In conclusion

So, can you listen to cell phone calls with a scanner? Can your neighbor listen to your cell phone calls with a scanner? Not anymore. If you have a really old cordless phone, they can pick that up, but that’s yet another reason to upgrade to a DECT 6.0 phone if you still have a landline of some sort. DECT 6.0 is digital, encrypted, and doesn’t interfere with wifi.

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