Amateur radio call signs have a secret

“We pause now station identification…”

For the older readers of my ramblings, this is probably a phrase that you have heard in years gone by. It’s familiar, but not something that you can put your finger on. Just hanging out in the corners of your memories, but nothing that you really thought of.

It wasn’t something that you thought about because of course you knew what channel you had set your radio or TV to, so what purpose did that server for you, the listener? You already knew the identity of the station, those words were an indication that you could tune out for 10 seconds without missing anything.

Truth is, station identification is a REALLY big thing when transmitting on a channel in a licensed band. Whether that license is for a specific frequency (like easy listening FM 100.1) or news stations (KSL 1160 AM comes to mind for me) or in the amateur community where the person transmitting has the license, not the actual space on the band, license serve a purpose. Most regulatory bodies require that stations identify themselves at periodic intervals (those intervals change depending on other factors) but identification is almost always a requirement. When people pay a lot of money for the frequency or work hard to be licensed for the privilege, knowing who is transmitting where is a key component. The reason is not for when things go right, but for when things go wrong.

Much like an AP transmitting on channel 9 or a device that is sending DHCP discovery frames 20 times a second, wireless engineers the world over are always looking for a way to identify those devices so they have a chance to track them down. Wi-Fi is easy with it’s source and destination addresses, but what about signals that don’t contain any “data”, just audio and/or video? When they start to misbehave, there are ways that RF engineers can hunt them down, and a station identifying themselves occasionally in their broadcasting is a key component in that. Sit on the spectrum for a while and engineers know they can count on hearing something that identifies who is transmitting the signal they are interested in. With that information, there are ways to track down the owner of that signal.

In the scenario I listed above, it seems pretty innocuous, but what about when the license is the person, and not the business? Truth is, the information is just as readily accessible for amateur radio holders the same as corporations, and I’m not sure everyone is aware of the dangers contained in this.

I’m purposefully not going to add links or explanations on how I am doing this because I don’t want to write a manual for people to use against those who don’t know this, but just be warned, those call signs used in station identifications don’t hide ANYTHING when it comes to the regulatory bodies!

Commercial Entities

Now, this is where station identification comes in handy for professionals chasing down interference problems. When stations identify themselves, a simple search can land you on some details that can be useful to resolving a problem. Those results look like this:

What we see here is simply a random license file I pulled up from a pretty common frequency actually. The information here is actually quite useful, but I blocked out the details to protect the innocent. What this tells me is the names and contact information for those responsible for this call sign. When troubleshooting possible interference, this is where I want to start. Tons of useful information, to include the “Control Points” – the physical location(s) that the transmitter is located. Nothing like a street address to get me close to whatever I am hunting.

But this brings me to my point of this post. Giving away physical locations based on call signs.

Amateur Radio Operators

Amateur radio operators, or “HAMs” work really hard to earn their license and stay in good standings to keep their license. Many like to advertise their call sign as a badge of honor, and I have nothing against that. I also will see people who will get a personalized license plate (at least in the United States) that lists their call sign. The secret is the same way I looked up the unwitting commercial entity of Alaska Airlines in my previous example, I can do the same thing using nothing more that the information I see while driving down the road.

Let’s take a quick look at Glenn E, no relation to the Glenn a lot of us know and love from Florida. No, Glenn just happens to be the unlucky person that had the FIRST random call sign I entered.

This Glenn is from Arizona, and as you might have figured out by all the information I covered up, I know a lot about Glenn just based on a random search.

You see, while I hold multiple radio licenses from the United States FCC, I don’t happen to flaunt the detailed information around a lot, because I know that someone, like me, can use this seemingly harmless bit of information to learn more about me than I would generally care for them to know. For some people, they know and understand the risks associated when they identify their station, be it while they are transmitting and are required to, or in day to day life when they publish their callsigns on social media or in other ways, like a license plate. For others, especially those who wish to protect some semblance or privacy from prying eyes (or ears) maybe think twice before posting those call signs for everyone.

I still think people should still learn about Amateur radio and if so inclined, get licensed and learn more about wireless, but if you are going to cut me off in traffic, maybe don’t give me a way to find your name and home address when doing it.

Stay safe out there, on the road and on the air!