WHAT IS SCANNING?

This short page is for those who have found themselves at my site but do not know what scanning is.

It does not refer to scanning documents on a scanner.   It does however refer to listening to radio communications on a scanner.   These are two different pieces of equipment, sharing the same name.  A scanner radio is one that receives non-broadcast signals in the vhf and uhf parts of the radio spectrum. These are the parts of the spectrum in which most human activities are present.  This includes such things as law enforcement, ambulance, fire services, coastal shipping, aircraft, military, civil government at all levels, and the wide range of business activities.   While there are broadcasting services within this spectrum, scanning does not generally include listening to these services, but of course some scanning enthusiasts do so, generally with the aim of receiving distant signals.   Scanner radios are usually configured so that they scan a set of programmed channels set up to suit the particular listener.

In days gone by scanning consisted mostly of a citizen having a radio in the kitchen, tuned to the local fire department or police force, and keeping track of what is going in the community.    Scanning has evolved so that today, yes there is an aspect of listening in remaining, but scanning also involves "figuring out" how systems work and are organized, or to detect distant signals.     It is not particularly as some would say "snooping" but rather a fascinating insight as to how things work technically and how things are working organizationally.  

In today's world many jurisdictions have converted law enforcement radio systems so that they are encrypted and no longer can be overhead.   In Prince Edward Island practically everything is encrypted.   Is this a good thing?    Some would say that it is of course a good thing in the sense that no one should be overhearing "private" conversations.   It should be noted that the airwaves are public and therefore nothing on the airwaves is in fact "private".   Users may have the expectation or impression that what they are saying is private but it really is not.    The onus lies with the users to mask their radio transmissions by encryption or other means, and scanning is not illegal.  It is certainly accepted that it is not a good thing for investigative police activities to be monitored, due to the benefit that would be available to criminals, and in recent years there has been a surge in privacy legislation making it problematic for agencies to mention a name on the air.    On the other hand there are many who say that encryption without specific reason terribly erodes transparency in regard to public service activities.  Perhaps it is a good thing that general daily activities of public servants can be monitored by citizens.  

Scanning today certainly consists partly of actually listening to a scanner, but it also involves monitoring systems with various types of computer-based hardware and software.   For example, it is very easy to monitor the local public service radio site with a computer and determine how many times "Channel 245" has been active, and to see what radios were involved in that activity, this being done without listening at all.

It should also be noted that in most services the users are assigned particular channels and in everyday usage only they use these channels, and different agencies are not listening to each other.    Scanners cut across this assignment system so that scanner owners can and do hear all of the channels, at least the ones they select and that are "in the clear" rather than encrypted.   Of course a scanner owner is limited as well by the level of sophistication of his or her equipment, and even today there are some types of transmissions that are very difficult or even impossible to decipher.

On the other hand there are two services that are essentially wide open and public; these being marine and aeronautical.   The radios in these services contain all the channels that are used in the service and while the channels are assigned in any area for specific purposes they are not generally assigned to individual users.   By coincidence or otherwise these two services are my particular scanning specialties and have been for many years.