Illegal Cellular Tapping

Analog cell phones were easy to tap. There was no signal encoding, so all one needed was a modified CB scanner (800MHz range) to pick up cell phone conversations.

Nowadays, nearly all cell phones are digital. The signal is still receivable (all RF signals are), however, since they are multiplexed and modulated, use FSK, PSK, Frequency Hopping, TDMA, CDMA, etc, you would only hear noise. This can be recorded and decoded, however you would not only have to fork out large sums of money for the complex equipment to do so, you would also have to locate said highly-illegal equipment. Unless you are a very important person (any your mommy telling you so does not qualify as very important, it is unlikely that anyone would go through the trouble of trying to tap your cell. Unless, that is, the government has their eye on you...

Governmental Tapping

If a government official listens in on your phone conversation without a court order, they can't use that information, however it is much more likely that a law enforcement official will get a legal tap.

Ephraim Schwartz from InfoWorld.com has this to say:

Wireless World

Recently the FBI requested permission from the FCC to use dialed digit extraction technology. Here's how it works: If you are on your cell phone and accessing your bank using touch tones to punch in an account number, the FBI wants to be able to intercept that information under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). The wireless industry took that FBI request to court; the courts ruled with the industry and against the FBI. At this point, any information passed via the phone that is not the phone number and location is not available to law enforcement agencies without a court order.

Permission to tap differs from state to state, but the general requirement is that the highest-level criminal court judge in each county is selected to hear applications made by police officials using sworn affidavits supported by live testimony. The affidavit states that a crime is being or has been committed and that evidence of person or persons involved in committing that crime can best be obtained by using a wiretap.

Permission is typically given for limited amounts of time, usually on a 30-day basis with the time extended under certain circumstances. Interestingly enough, by law, the person being tapped must be notified, usually within 90 days after the tap, that a tap was placed on the phone.

As for the mechanics of legal taps on cell phones by law enforcement agencies, they are just as easy as land lines to tap. Cell phones communicate with a tower in a hexagonally shaped cell of coverage (hence the name cellular). The tower picks up your phone signal, equipment in a building at the base of the tower converts that signal and sends it to the CO through copper, just like land-line calls. This means the provider can tap your calls just by routing them via software to an specified location. Usually, the call will be forwarded to the [FBI/CIA/DEA/ATF/etc]'s office and the agents assigned to the tap will handle the recording and monitoring.
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