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I recall that in the UK (unlike in the rest of the world) we have a law forbidding the listening to of air traffic control, dating back a century, to the days of paranoia over spies!

What is this law, exactly? Is it illegal for a member of the public to listen to live ATC in the UK? Are there any exceptions?

It seems like something of a grey area, but some sources claim that listening to a delayed feed (or historical recording) works around this law; is this true?

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Not unlike the entire rest of the world though, Germany has similar brain-damaged laws. Might be more around. –  falstro Apr 9 at 6:20
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In Indiana, it's illegal to bathe in the winter. You're not the only country with strange laws :) –  dvnrrs Apr 9 at 13:06
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Hmm, reminds me of laws prohibiting suicide. –  Terry Jul 3 at 4:03

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Yes, it is illegal.

The UK has some very strange ideas about Radio, which bear no resemblance to the reality of physics and how radio actually works. Foremost among those ideas is the idea that you are only legally allowed to listen to transmissions intended for "general reception":

The services that can be listened to under the definition of general reception are:

  • licensed broadcasting stations;
  • amateur and citizens' band radio transmissions; and
  • weather and navigation transmissions

Radio scanners should not be used to listen to any other radio services, including illegal radio stations (pirates) (by virtue of the fact that they are not licensed radio stations).

Aviation-band transmissions are not on Ofcom's list, so even though they are broadcast entirely "in the clear" and anyone with an appropriately tuned AM receiver could hear them you are legally prohibited from listening to them.


Providing feeds to LiveATC would also appear to be a violation, though it's not clear to me that listening to LiveATC streams would put the listener in violation of the law.

From the same Ofcom site:

… it is illegal to listen to anything other than general reception transmissions unless you are either a licensed user of the frequencies in question or have been specifically authorised to do so by a designated person.

and

… it is also illegal to tell a third party what has been heard in a transmission a person has listened to illegally.

So anyone providing UK aviation band transmissions to LiveATC may be in violation of both of those laws, but I'm not certain what that means for LiveATC listeners (that would be a question to ask Ofcom).

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I doubt you'll find UK feed on LiveATC for this exact reason, but I'm also curious to know from a listener's perspective; I have seen one site with feeds, on a short delay. –  Danny Beckett Apr 9 at 6:10
    
@DannyBeckett There's a bit of a gray area in Ofcom's pronouncements on that page -- If an authorized person captures the radio traffic they might be allowed to disclose its contents (either verbally, in a transcript, or maybe as a recording). You'd need to find someone better versed in UK law than I to figure out that murky legal area though. –  voretaq7 Apr 9 at 6:16
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The tens of thousands of people with airband receivers (which are freely sold in the UK...) at UK airshows would be quite surprised to hear they're all breaking the law, as would be the armed military police patrolling the premises. Of course it can very well be argued that ATC and aircraft transmitters ARE licensed (as without a license they would not be allowed to transmit in the UK). The last sentence of the statement is telling, seems to indicate that the restriction is only for pirate stations. –  jwenting Apr 9 at 6:46
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@jwenting Just because the law surprises you (and is RIDICULOUSLY STUPID) doesn't mean it's not the law - We have a law in NYC that says you can't shoot rabbits from an elevated train line. The general position in the UK (and many other commonwealth countries, as I understand it) is that airband transmissions are not "general reception transmissions", which means it's a crime to listen to them unless you're an "authorised person". (The practice is the law is RIDICULOUSLY STUPID and enforcement is largely nonexistent, but that was the case for jaywalking in NYC for decades…) –  voretaq7 Apr 9 at 15:47
    
Is ATC a "navigational transmission"? –  David Richerby Apr 9 at 18:44

Strictly speaking it is against the law, the transmission is not intended for public reception (indicated by it falling outside of public broadcast frequencies) and you are not the intended recipient.

However you will find that in practice this is ignored on a personal basis.

i.e. yourself listening nobody has a problem with, if you were to then make what you hear available elsewhere whether via retransmission, recording or transcript I would expect a knock on the door from Ofcom

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Yes it is illegal.

UK's OFCOM, the Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries write

Q. Isn't this all a bit heavy?

A. No. No-one likes their private or business conversations to be listened to. Parliament has passed these laws to protect the privacy of radio users

Obviously this appears pretty futile to many people, me included.

Practicality or enforceability of law is not an issue that prevents legislation. There are other laws that are more obviously justifiable but which relate to actions that are equally difficult to prevent.

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Basic legislation within the EU, specifies that your are allowed to listen to any type of information available on the electromagnetic spectrum. It is up to the users to protect said information by using encryption if so required. This is not to say that there is not some very restrictive legislation in place in some countries. They just hate the thought of their citizens getting informations of almost any kind. Ignore the law and take your complaints to the courts in Brussels. The local authorities will hate you for that, but you will probably win the case.

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Could you add a source for the first part of your answer? the second part also sounds as based on very little facts but rather on your personal ideas. –  Federico Apr 9 at 11:00
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It's Article 19 - Universal Declaration of Human Rights : "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.". The equivalent ECHR article 10 has direct force of law in the EU and outranks UK law. It's a sad fact that some people want sources for such statements, basic human rights ought to be General Knowledge. –  MSalters Jun 25 at 22:40
    
It is true that EU law often trumps UK law. –  Danny Beckett Jul 2 at 21:55
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It's illegal in Germany too, and people have actually been convicted, so I'm guessing they're able to work around that somehow. I think the issue is that you're not the intended recipient, so you're effectively "wiretapping" (without the wire). The article you quote seems to want to avoid people (governments) from blocking signals intended for you or general reception. Such as blocking Twitter when someone posts something bad about the president. –  falstro Jul 3 at 6:09
    
@MSalters: UDHR is not EU law, it is an (old) statement from the UN of the rights that we should all strive to promote. In any event, Article 19 is about having the right to receive information that was intended for you--not to receive all information irrespective of the intended recipient; even if it were, balances often need to be struck between various rights: e.g. the right (under Article 12) to protection from arbitrary interference with privacy and correspondence. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union would hold more weight, but the UK opted out. –  eggyal Aug 5 at 14:24

Contact between ATC and Aircraft is purely for Navigation Transmissions and therefore legal. I've never heard them having a general chat other than the odd Merry Christmas Etc.

In my opinion it's general receive.

If it's not illegal to listen to then it's not illegal to pass info on in whatever form, ie web feed.

I've asked ofcom and if I get a reply will post here.

Dave

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In your opinion (and everyone else's) it's general receive. However it is not legal for the general public to listen to. I've seen online that OFCOM back this, but I'd be interested to see if they respond. This has long been the reason that LiveATC.net does not publish UK ATC feeds. –  Danny Beckett Jul 2 at 21:52
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"If it's not illegal to listen to then it's not illegal to pass info on in whatever form, ie web feed." That doesn't follow at all. It's not illegal for me to buy a book (or even read it in the book shop without paying for it) but it is illegal for me to reproduce the contents of that book and distribute them to others. –  David Richerby Jul 3 at 11:06
    
Sorry I don't see the relevance to buying a copyright book and reproducing it for others to read. –  Dave Edge Jul 3 at 19:23
    
The point I'm making it's only illegal to redistribute information that I have illegally obtained myself. I can understand Broadcast Receptions such as BBC or local radio stations because they hold the copyright to their own material. But who holds the copyright to ATC/Aircraft transmissions. If you can't supply feeds for any kind of general reception then why are the amateur radio websdr sites ok or are they not ok. Anyway I don't expect a response from Ofcom, but you never know. –  Dave Edge Jul 3 at 19:32
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@DaveEdge The relevance of buying a book and reproducing it for others to read is that it proves that the statement "it's only illegal to redistribute information that I have illegally obtained myself" is incorrect. A book is an example of information that you can obtain legally but which it is still illegal to redistribute. –  David Richerby Jul 4 at 7:34

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