For a long time now it has been known that pager data is sent in the clear and in plain text over a strong and easily received RF signal. The signal can easily be intercepted with a standard scanner radio or more recently with an SDR such as the RTL-SDR. Software such as PDW can then be used to decode the signal into plain text. We have a tutorial on this available here.
In these more modern days of cell phones and secure text messaging very few people still use pagers. But one heavy user of pagers is the medical community who still prefer them as they are already widely implemented in hospitals and are very reliable. The lower frequencies and high transmission powers used by pager systems allows for better reception especially in areas prone to poor cellphone reception such as in big buildings like hospitals with many walls underground areas. They are also very reliable as they receive messages instantly, whereas text messages can be delayed in times of high network traffic which is obviously a problem when a doctor is needed urgently. Finally, another advantage is that most pagers only receive, so there are no local transmissions that could interfere with sensitive medical machines. A major downside however is that pager use means that a lot of very private patient data can be easily intercepted by anyone anywhere in the same city as the hospital.
Back in October artist and programmer Brannon Dorsey displayed an art installation at the Radical Networks conference in Brooklyn which he calls Holypager. The idea is to bring attention to the breach of privacy. The installation simply prints out the pager messages as they are sent in real time, accumulating patient data that any visitor can pick up and read. He doesn't mention it on his page, but in one of the photos we see a HackRF One, antenna and Raspberry Pi hiding underneath the installation which is how the pager messages are received. A simple RTL-SDR could also be used as the receiver. Brannon writes:
Holypager is an art installation that intercepts all POCSAG pager messages in the city it resides and forwards them to one (holy) pager. The installation anonymizes all messages and forwards them randomly to one of three pagers on display. Each message is also printed on a contiguous role of receipt paper amassing a large pile of captured pages for gallery goers to peruse.
Pagers use an outdated protocol that requires all messages to be broadcast unencrypted to each pager in the area. It is the role of the individual pager to filter and display only the messages intended for its specific address. The pagers below have been reprogrammed to ignore this filter and receive every message in the city in real time. Today, these devices are primarily used in hospitals to communicate highly sensitive information between doctors and hospital staff.
Given the severity of the HIPPA Privacy Act, one would assume that appropriate measures would be taken to prevent this information from being publicly accessible to the general public. This project serves as a reminder that as the complexity and proliferation of digital systems increase the cultural and technological literacy needed to understand the safe and appropriate use of these systems often do not.