continued Many radio buffs, including Blanton, insist that every item in the kit was either legal or, in the case of the decoding program, freely available on the Web. What seems to have irked the feds and caused them to haul the Cheeks into court was the instruction sheet the couple included with the kit, which the government alleges, "explicitly advises users about decoding MDT data and states that COMMtronics would 'leave it up to you (the purchaser) to copy your friends and neighbors driver history information as the traffic cop feeds in their personal data.' "
Of course, intercepting data communications like that without authorization is illegal under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the 1986 law that also requires government agents to obtain a court order to get access to electronic communications. And in the complaint filed against the Cheeks, the government talks a lot about the "highly sensitive information" that is transmitted by MDT, including details about suspects' criminal histories, victims' medical records, as well as DMV data.
But cops have been known to use MDT technology for other kinds of communications. In 1991, the case against the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King got a big boost when it was learned that computer messages sent via MDT by officers involved in the King arrest included racial slurs and frank admissions of excessive force. These included boasts like, "I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time," as well as a description of a domestic dispute involving African-Americans that compared the incident to something "right out of Gorillas in the Mist." (The officer who received the message responded: "HaHaHaHa. Let me guess who be the parties.")
"It's interesting," says Blanton. "I think one of the key reasons [the Cheeks were indicted] is because when the cops use the MDTs, they think of it as a secure connection, where they can talk to other officers without anybody else hearing or monitoring. They believe that the public can't listen to them. Now that people can listen to them, they're really getting bent out of shape. It's a real shame. I think they're really overreacting.
"I am worried about it," Blanton continues. "I am worried about the government coming after me because I have all the plans for building those interfaces on my website. There's nothing illegal about that. But I don't have the time or energy to devote to defending myself legally if that comes up. I've thought about just taking down my website. But that's probably exactly what they want."
On their website, the Cheeks warned potential kit buyers that they were "Not responsible/liable for illegal use of this information and/or these products; nor for the consequences thereof. You must determine the lawfulness of these products for your applications and not use them if illegal. Use of this information and/or these products is 100 percent exclusively at your own risk."
The Cheeks appear to have come to the attention of federal authorities in New York after Keith Knipschild, an unemployed electronics enthusiast from Long Island, posted intercepted MDT communications from Nassau County on his website. It's not clear whether Knipschild was a customer of the Cheeks', but his actions were not very smart.
"Posting that stuff on the Internet was a big no-no," says Blanton.
According to a story in Newsday, "Knipschild's website had 93 pages of police transmissions from March 12, which included criminal histories and warrants, motor-vehicle checks, medical information about victims, and witness statements. Nassau police confirmed the information was transmitted by police on that day."
The Cheeks' arrest, Newsday reported, was "a related case."
Neither the Cheeks nor their lawyers, Howard Frank and Lynn Ball, wanted to talk last week about the charges. "I don't think I have any comment," Frank says. "The case is brand new to me, and I just don't know enough yet to make an intelligent comment. It would just be stupid to say something now when I don't know what's going on."
But scanner buffs said the arrest sent a chill through their community -- at least in the United States.
"There were a number of individuals who were running Web pages to help disseminate that software that could decode pagers or MDT," says Blanton. "What's happened is that now that folks have realized that Bill has been arrested for this, everybody got scared and pulled the information. There's still one individual in the U.K., who, of course, is not subject to U.S. laws, who has posted these applications on his Web page. But anyone in the U.S. who goes to his page [www.kmed70.free serve. co.uk/ kmed70/software.htm]and downloads is probably doing something illegal."