According to Is it illegal for Joe Public to listen to ATC in the UK? over on Aviation.SE, although aviation transmissions are broadcast publicly, in the clear, unencrypted; it is illegal to listen to them live on a scanner or such.

What law prohibits this? I believe it dates to WWII fears of spies. I also believe the UK is the only country with such a law. You can freely listen to New York's JFK or Amsterdam Schiphol's ATC without a problem.

Has anybody been successfully prosecuted under this law?

  • The same law would seem to apply to receiving ADS-B (aircraft position transponder) data. Sites like Flightradar24 do this, and publish the information, quite openly. flightradar24.com/how-it-works – Paul Johnson Mar 11 '19 at 15:06

The Radiocommunications Agency (now OFCOM) issued some guidance about this in 2001.

The specific offence is defined by s5 Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949:

Any person who ... uses any 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 ... shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.

It's also an offence under s5(1)(b)(ii) to disclose the contents of any such message, so the reception and disclosure of radio messages not sent by or addressed to you are both offences.

I don't know if there have been any successful prosecutions specifically for monitoring aircraft communications. I doubt whether a hobbyist listening for his own enjoyment would attract the attention of the authorities, but if he started to publish recordings of the traffic then that might well do it.

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  • It is my understanding from a different issue (heavy 'REIN' coming from one business, affecting another business, causing extreme internet problems) that OFCOM is the regulator, but they have "no business interest" in enforcing regulations like this (according to BT). – Danny Beckett May 27 '15 at 18:18
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    If there was sufficient public interest, there'd be nothing stopping the CPS from instructing the police to charge this offence -- no reason to involve OFCOM at all. – Flup Jun 12 '15 at 14:30
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    Random side note: there's an unofficial edge-case for pager traffic (POCSAG) in the UK whereby it is generally considered acceptable to capture and read it, because a pager has to do that in order to know if a message is intended for it, but it isn't acceptable to distribute or act upon information contained within a pager message not intended for you. Many EMS systems still use POCSAG as a backup for dispatch, however, and I believe there is separate legislation around intercepting that. – Polynomial Feb 19 '17 at 19:57
  • If you find the plane spotters near an airport you will often see they are listening in on airband radios. Nobody seems to care about it. – Paul Johnson Mar 11 '19 at 15:04
  • @PaulJohnson arguably they (people with a legitimate interest in air traffic at an airport) are the intended recipients! – JeffUK Mar 14 '19 at 21:03

What about other planes listening to the broadcast which isn't meant for them!

Don't think the OFCOM clause mentioned applies on public transmission channels. A receiver of this transmission cause no disruption and anyone can easily build a device capable of listening to transmission.

It is, however, restricted but not because of this OFGEM clause.

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