If You Have WiFi, a Cell Phone, Or Lots Of Other Things, The FCC Thinks It Can Search Your House

from the respect-my-authoritah dept

Part of the Federal Communications Commission’s job is to regulate the airwaves, ensuring that radio devices don’t unduly interfere with each other and turn the spectrum into a morass of noise. Generally this entails making sure that licensed radio and TV stations are staying within the frequencies they’re assigned and within certain power levels, and also cracking down on people broadcasting in licensed frequencies without licenses. One tool in the FCC’s investigative arsenal is the ability to inspect radio gear, like TV stations’ transmitters, but the Commission also says that this extends to things like WiFi routers, cordless and cell phones, remote garage door openers, TV remotes, or “anything using RF energy.” This means that if you have any of those products, or anything with a radio, the FCC thinks it has the right to search your house (via Boing Boing). The FCC contends the authority stems from the Communications Act of 1934, but as Threat Level points out, it’s never been challenged in court, mainly because it’s a relatively recent phenomenon for essentially every American household to have so many radio devices. While it’s unlikely that the FCC will begin raiding homes to confiscate WiFi routers and garage door openers, there is speculation that should FCC agents enter a home and see evidence of unrelated criminal behavior, that evidence can be used for criminal prosecution. This could give law enforcement a potential back door around search and seizure laws, a move which certainly merits some concern.

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Comments on “If You Have WiFi, a Cell Phone, Or Lots Of Other Things, The FCC Thinks It Can Search Your House”

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BTR1701 says:

Re: Re: I love Back Doors to the 4th Amendment

> Don’t let them in. You essentially waive your 4th amendment
> rights if you let them into your home.

That’s completely false. If you grant the police consent to search your home, you can revoke that consent at any time and the cops have to leave, even in mid-search.

That’s well-established case law.

Danny says:


Just how good or bad are realations between the FCC and the recording industry?

FCC searches your house because you have a wireless router and upon searching they find “what might be” evidence of copyright infringment (i.e. downloading). Somehow this gets to the recording industry and next thing you know you are getting sued for a few million dollars.

I know this is long shot but you have to admit that a back door like this would be very tempting.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Question

Hardly a long shot, if you haven’t noticed over the last decade law enforcement has been getting more and more intrusive while our civil liberties keep diminishing. You’d shit a brick if you ever heard what oldschool RF engineers were doing back in the 60’s for the NSA. If you think you have any right to privacy anymore you’re just a fool. Go to a public library and start looking up homemade piepbombs or where to buy fertalizer, or anything else related and I gurantee you’ll have a black sedan outside your home in no time. Every single electronic communication is being monitored and not a far stretch to assume cameraphones are just a huge blanket surveillance system.

It doesn’t take an entire government, it just takes one person with a lot of determination.

You are being watched.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s nothing I need “saving” from, I’m just lazy and my name’s extremely common, but if you prefer just call me Steve. The odds you’re ever going to be fully investigated is extremely rare, but the mere fact that even if you built a computer from scratch and hi-jacked someones bandwidth from a completely remote location and started googling “death to america” and “how to be a terrorist” they’d still track your ass down. The level of government involvement in it’s citizens personal lives is absurd, and if you think any differently than I’m glad you can sleep well at night; those with our eyes open see a very bleak future.

Dave says:


I have to say, I’ve been involved with getting the FCC to crack down on someone who was splatter RF all over the Amateur spectrum, so I’m not 100% opposed to this. But, in both cases, long before the FCC will kick down your door, they’ll park a van out front and monitor every bit of RF coming out of your house and will have any evidence they need to get a warrant, I assure you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well...

If they have been gathering all the evidence they need to get a warrant… Then GET THE BLOODY WARRANT! I’m not going to let you into my house because you think the right to inspect equipment means Right Now for some reason, regardless of constitutional amendments.

That law (which is beneath the constitution in priority) may say they have the right to inspect equipment. It doesn’t say how, when, or where. You want to inspect my wireless router? I may bring it to the door for you. You want to inspect my house? That’s going to cost you a warrant. What part of ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ did you not understand?

I’d love to see this one tried in court. Particularly over some non-licensed user with a normal piece of legal but broken equipment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Well...

And usually they send a cease and desist letter first telling you that you are causing interference, and to take corrective action, and you have to reply (usually within 10 days)telling them you’ve taken corrective action to stop the interference. They verify it, and they leave you alone. Now if you choose to be a ball buster, and not reply or take corrective action well you are only asking for a visit from your Uncle Charlie.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They already have a backdoor...

..and this is where your 4th Amendment right should protect you against illegal search and seizure. Just like if a cop was pursuing a suspect and came through your backyard and saw you smoking out of a bong, he couldn’t then use that as probable cause to search the rest of the residence. Quite frankly, they’re supposed to disregard the entire incident completely, but fat chance that’s ever gonna happen.

YAY AMERICA!!! I so love our patriotism, long live the right to consumption.

BTR1701 says:

Re: Re: Re: They already have a backdoor...

> If it’s a general search warrant, they can take whatever they want.

There’s no such thing as a “general search warrant”. The Constitution requires that warrants must “particularly describe the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Any warrant that simply gave the cops the ability to seize whatever they liked would be easily challenged in court considering there’s about 200+ years of 4th Amendment jurisprudence that disallows such things.

Bettawrekonize (profile) says:

“While it’s unlikely that the FCC will begin raiding homes to confiscate WiFi routers and garage door openers, there is speculation that should FCC agents enter a home and see evidence of unrelated criminal behavior, that evidence can be used for criminal prosecution.”

I thought there are laws that protect against things like this. If they come in your house they can only take what they are looking for and that’s all. Everything else they must ignore?

The infamous Joe says:

Re: Re:

As I read it, they can’t actually come in and take anything. They can come in and *inspect* the RF equipment. Armed with that they’ll get a warrant to come back and take it, if it’s in violation of regulations/laws.

The real problem is that this could easily be abused, as if they see anything illegal while inspecting your RF equipment, it can be used against you later.

Since it’s now quite commonplace to have equipment that emits RF (I believe a microwave will do it, which even my grandmother has) the police, if they so desired, could use the FCC to circumvent our 4th amendment rights.

This would be in the “bad” category.

DJ (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: RF Energy huh?

Kind of….
“Unintentional radiators” are either not DESIGNED to emit RF (per the definition of unintentional), and therefore, though you could be subject to an equipment investigation, the FCC would still have to be able to PROVE that you KNEW what you were doing.

Or, if you were legally emitting RF within standards via a piece of equipment, but one of its harmonics was causing EMI (electromagnetic interference), they could inspect your equipment. Again, however, to hold you liable, they would have to prove it was intentional.

greg says:

"search and seizure laws"

i don’t see that there is such thing as a ‘backdoor’ around the constitution. the bill of rights supersedes the acts that Congress passes, and the judicial branch’s power of judicial review has been set for a pretty long while… so i am pretty sure that a case involving a search and seizure in this fashion wouldn’t make it past the district court, let alone get an appeal, or even see the hands of the justices of the scotus.

CmdrOberon says:

Re: Re: Re: "search and seizure laws"

It’s an off-handed reference that the Constitution
has been largely ignored for many things for the
past several decades.

It’s sad, but true. We’re not following the letter,
and in some cases, the spirit, of the Constitution
any longer.

For example, Fourth Amendment. They’re not
supposed to be able to search or sieze w/o probable
cause. But, if the cops board a Greyhound, ask
to search your bags and you refuse, they now have
some probable cause. This was a big hullabaloo
back in the mid to late 80s.

Traffic stops at on & offramps of freeways (for
DWI testing) have been upheld. The greater good
of society is a nice thing, but it still shouldn’t trump
the Constitution.

Border crossing checkpoints 100 miles inside the border
of the US are another controversial issue from recent
times. (2/3 of the population of the US lives within
100 miles of the border). The ruling was, IIRC, that
the Constitution does not apply within 100 miles
of the border.

If you don’t let them search your car volunatrily, they
have probable cause to arrest you — because you are
being suspicious.

Eyes open and you’ll be shocked what’s happening in the US.

Anonymous Coward says:

comment from source article sums it up pretty well:

Posted by: photoprinter | 05/21/09 | 3:21 pm

“@adam1mc, read the article and comments again. They are not entering WITHOUT asking. They ask to see the equipment. If you say no, they go away and get a warrant. They then come back with warrant, and an officer. What’s the big deal? they are enforcing the laws. End of story. If they start abusing the law, they will be called to task. I think this whole thing is a non issue. Must be a slow news day.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: comment from source article sums it up pretty well:

But there have been times of abuse before.


In this situation the swat team, on behalf of the IRS, broke the cameras that were recording them and destroyed all the video footage. But there was a backup computer that stored the information as well (they missed it) and that’s what stood up in court. It’s not beyond the government to try and hide and distort data.

DJ (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Neither is the IRS in the Constitution. The 16th ammendment simply grants Congress “…power to lay and collect taxes on incomes…”, but nowhere is the Internal Revenue SERVICE (stress on the last word) mentioned.

let’s see…
FDA, FCC, FBI. Just more examples of “federal” agencies which are not in the Constitution. However, with the exception of the IRS, which was simply grandfathered in, they all have been instated as legal government agencies by Congress.

So neither your question, nor my reply have anything to do with the topic at hand.

Anonymous Coward says:

this is one of those major blah-blah stories that misses so many points.

first and foremost when it comes to non-warrant searches (technical verifications), the rules are pretty much plain sight. so they can’t check your computer (beyond running an rf meter over it to see what is being spewed out) because everything after that is not plain sight.

Second and just as important, you have to read the full FCC rules to understand that they have a whole program of notifications before station inspections, and they don’t have the jackbooted thugs banging down people’s doors to check their wifi setup.

The story is yet another misleading poke at government courtesy of techdirt, your one stop source for slanted “news”.

JBB says:

Re: Re:

> The story is yet another misleading poke at government courtesy of techdirt, your one stop source for slanted “news”.

Misleading? Here’s the news from the FCC’s own mouth:


“Q: The FCC Agent standing at my door does not have a search warrant, so I don’t have to let him in, right?

A: Wrong. Search warrants are needed for entry involving criminal matters. One of the requirements as a licensee, or non-licensee subject to the Commission’s Rules, is to allow inspection of your radio equipment by FCC personnel. Whether you operate an amateur station or any other radio device, your authorization from the Commission comes with the obligation to allow inspection. Even radio stations licensed under a “blanket” rule or approval, such as Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio, are subject to the Commission’s inspection requirement. “

I find that worrying, and I find techdirt’s article hardly “misleading”. It is a very apropos article.

We’re not talking about station inspections, or not just. We’re talking about your home. Not just commercial locations, your *home*. And they’re claiming ‘We can come in without a warrant,’ they *do* have jackbooted thugs, and they’ve barged in or tried to in the past.

Anonymous of Course says:

Re: Re: Re:

The reasoning behind the FCC’s authority is the interstate commerce act. Radio waves do not respect state borders and from that they draw their authority. In many cases it’s a debatable point. Say I live in an apartment and my computer is emitting noise 1t 100KHz that upsets my neighbor’s intercom. They can complain to the FCC and they might see enforcement action but there is NO way my puny 100KHz (unintentional) transmitter’s signal is leaving the state unless I live straddling the border. In the end it’s convienent to have them handle these sorts of problems.

Tell them they can’t enter and they may return with US marshalls and a warrant.

What’s most troubling to me are recent court descisions that
say hey, wait a minute, lets not through out a perfectly good bust because someone happend to stumble upon it while looking for something else. It makes a fishing expidition just too attractive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Plus, and this is really important, read the fricken story:

“The rules came to attention this month when an FCC agent investigating a pirate radio station in Boulder, Colorado, left a copy of a 2005 FCC inspection policy on the door of a residence hosting the unlicensed 100-watt transmitter. “Whether you operate an amateur station or any other radio device, your authorization from the Commission comes with the obligation to allow inspection,” the statement says.

The notice spooked those running “Boulder Free Radio,” who thought it was just tough talk intended to scare them into shutting down, according to one of the station’s leaders, who spoke to Wired.com on condition of anonymity. “This is an intimidation thing,” he said. “Most people aren’t that dedicated to the cause. I’m not going to let them into my house.””

These guys are running a pirate radio station. Enough said, these idiots need to be taken down. NEXT.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Critical reading skills are not your forte, are they?

There are many, many federal inspection regulations (from farms to social services) that permit visits and inspections. But those inspections are very narrowly restricted to inspections of a station or setup operating under FCC laws.

It isn’t a blanket search warrant, they can’t toss your house looking for a crime. They won’t find the crack rocks under your mattress. They ain’t looking for that. They are there specifically to check what is regulated and assigned under FCC regulations.

Now, if you are going to quote regulations, please get it right. First off, quote the law: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/47/303.html

“The Federal Communications Commission has the authority to inspect most radio installations”

“Have authority to inspect all radio installations associated with stations required to be licensed by any Act, or which the Commission by rule has authorized to operate without a license under section 307 (e)(1) of this title”

So then we go off to seciton 307 of the title, and find:


Read through it, and you will realize that it applies to radio transmitters, and not type accepts short range devices. It applies to radio stations (including CB radio operators, as those are a radio station) but does not apply to things like garage remote controls or short range wifi (both of which operate in prescribed garbage bands).

So yeah, if you pull certain words out of context, you can make them look like jackbooted thugs. But the reality is that the FCC ain’t coming to check your wifi.

DJ (profile) says:

Re: Of course, there's a catch

oops, hit enter on accident.

The catch is that, if the FCC shows up at your house and asks to inspect equipment, A)you don’t have to let them in, at risk of a fine; B)if you DO have something illegal out, simply tell them to hold on a minute, go hide everything, and THEN let them in.

They can’t search your house, just inspect the RF equipment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Response to: Anonymous Coward on May 21st, 2009 @ 2:12pm

Im a complet idiot about any of what your talking of but its still interesting ….please tell me why u believe the future is bleak,im an outright anarchists.i truly want the human race to end an start over..i believe we missed the best part of evolution or just what ever u well read knowitalls know. Im just a good ol thief .

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