Software-Defined Radio, SDR and the great responsibility that it comes with.

We’re currently in a radio renaissance comparable with the days of the blue box or the 56k modem we’re in an era where radio has been blown wide open and made available to anyone and everyone who might have any interest in it.

I’ve seen so many amazing uses of this technology and for many it has opened new doors into a world that they didn’t know even existed. There is something amazingly luring about knowing what a satellite transponder looks like or being able to decode pager messages.

I’d like to take a look back throughout history, the moment people started hacking the phone system for free long distance calls, the explosion of the internet and how quickly many used it for illicit purposes, something used today by the government to begin restricting what we can do online.

Among many enthusiasts of Software-Defined Radio is the cyber security community, and why wouldn’t they be? Radio in many aspects has always followed the “Security through obscurity” model which…. I’ll give you a hint. Isn’t a very good method of securing anything.

Why was this though? Frankly I attribute most of this to the fact that most people couldn’t afford a decent radio scanner and even if they could it likely had areas blocked or required a lot of modification to do anything outside of passive listening. There wasn’t much incentive to encrypt communications that many had no way of monitoring in the first place and so they didn’t.

Now we’re at a stage where security researchers and even your every day hobbyists are blowing things wide open because we went from needing thousands of dollars in equipment to for around $300 you can run a cell site inside your own home! The move to software-defined instead of the old hardware-defined has truly unshackled us all from what we once thought was possible.

Where I ask however, is the limit?

We can monitor pager traffic, decode satellite voice communications, jam GPS and so much more (nothing I condone ofc) The problem I am seeing more and more frequently is that many beginners are hopping on the band wagon of decoding and sharing phone calls, pager messages and other private information with the general public. This is a crime in the vast majority of countries.

Consider this, legal or not.
You are monitoring Iridium or Inmarsat and hear a call come in, most of these calls especially on Inmarsat are calls between emergency Medical personal to those on aircraft dealing with a life threatening situation. Do you really want to listen to someone on the phone explaining how their loved one is dying on a plane and there is little that can be done to save them?

Let’s take another example from pager decoders, most of the paging systems still active (in the United States anyway) are in operation exclusively for hospitals. The vast majority of pages contain confidential information such as patient details and more. Do you really want to know that someone by such and such a name is having a heart attack and they just called a whole floor to the operating room?

I want to have a real discussion about ethics here because while there is something to be said about the legality of some of the things we do and how lawmakers might look at our hobby in the future. We also have to realize like many have though out history that sometimes we think we’re just sitting behind a keyboard having fun when….. sometimes we’re somehow excitedly looking at something that while interesting to us is probably the worst day of another’s life.

Next time you’re thinking about playing with a transmitter, consider power output and license requirements, there is a good reason for it. It’s not that hard to even accidentally disrupt communications. I really want people to think about what it is they are doing. Just because you have the capability to do all these things doesn’t mean that you should.

We all love this technology and I’m sure we all want it to continue to be as un-impeded as possible, part of that is making sure we’re taking the steps not to abuse this new power. To some, this is a super power. It’s an ability that most don’t wield and frankly it’s a new ability to nearly all of us. Don’t abuse it.