41

In Pulp Fiction, drug dealer Lance is terrified when he understands that Vince is talking to him about drugs using a cell phone. He calls him a prank caller and hangs up.

He seems to think that cell phones may be wiretapped, but landline phones may not. Why?

  • 21
    Because the movie is from 1994, and back then analogue cellphones were more common than digital phones, and are not encrypted so are easy to listen into on scanners. – iandotkelly Sep 23 '16 at 1:31
  • 3
    @iandotkelly jinx. – cde Sep 23 '16 at 1:41
60

Cell phones at the time were unencrypted analog signals and could be picked up by any number of modified and unmodified radio systems. Scanner radios were easy to modify to pick them up. Even a UHF tv set could pick them up.

Current cell phones have moved to less easily accessible radio bands, encrypted, digital signals that jump from channel to channel, time divided, or frequencies. CDMA, TDMA, and FDMA, respectively. They can't be picked up with an off the shelf consumer radio.

A land line could definitely be wiretapped, but Lance likely knew his line wasn't, and the chance of an incoming line being tapped was low, and either would require a warrant and a large expenditure and good reasoning by police. But an analog cell phone wouldn't require a warrant. It's free air transmissions. Hell, look at current Stingray technology, where cops abuse the law and technology to wire tap cell phones without a warrant, on the basis that radio transmission isn't private.

  • 1
    This was the center of the pile of scandals that brought then-GOP Speaker Newt Ginrich down in the late 1990s. A couple in Florida, using their police radio scanner intercepted John Boehner joining in a conference call with other GOP leadership to talk about their coordinated response to Ethics charges against Gingrich, to be announced later in the day. Gingrich had a formal agreement with the Ethics committee for consideration in how they handled the case in exchange for him not coordinating PR/spin with his party. cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/01/13/tape/index.shtml – PoloHoleSet Sep 23 '16 at 15:24
  • 1
    The couple got in trouble because that interception of the phone call and recording it was legally considered to be the same thing as an illegal wiretap of a phone. – PoloHoleSet Sep 23 '16 at 15:25
  • 2
    Intercepting unencrypted cell phone conversations is also a major plot point in There's Something About Mary in 1998 – dbugger Sep 23 '16 at 15:28
  • 1
    This was particularly annoying if you had a wireless home phone as you would frequently intercept callers, driving by, during your own phone conversations (and vice versa.) – Khale_Kitha Sep 23 '16 at 16:41
  • 2
    @dugger. That was a cordless phone but same concept. – mcgyver5 Sep 23 '16 at 16:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .