EDITORIAL: Washington Navy Yard and MPD Encrypted Radio Situation Helps Illustrate the Challenge of Public Safety Communications and the Public’s Safety
On the surface D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier presents a reasonable-sounding argument to support the idea of police radio encryption — reasonable, if you’re not fully aware of all the methods of police communications. At a Washington D.C. Council hearing in September 2011 Lanier said, “we need to communicate vital communications immediately and without hesitation. However, as anyone who has listened to police radio communications knows, this may include very detailed and sensitive information about victims, witnesses or suspects. Through the encryption, we can help to deter crime, as criminals have used scanners to track police activity and plan their crimes.” Washington DC police switched to a secret police radio encryption system in September 2011. Lanier is one major United States city police chief that has been outspoken about the need for encrypted police radio communications.
“When a potential criminal can ask how they can evade capture and there’s an app for that, it’s time to change our practices.”
— Police Chief Cathy Lanier answering Councilmember Phil Mendelson (hearing chair)
Lanier argued to councilmembers that new mobile technologies like scanner apps on smartphones made the move to secret police radio encryption even more vital, and cited a number of cases where police suspected that criminals used scanners to stay ahead of police. Lanier reported that a rash of carjackings in Capitol Hill in 2010, and an alleged drug operation run out of a laundromat in the Seventh District, which covers Ward 8, was facilitated by mobile scanners.
Representatives of District of Columbia media outlets, including the Washington Post, WTOP and WTTG/Fox 5, reported that Lanier’s decision dramatically limited their ability to communicate vital information about crime, traffic and emergencies to the public.
Without encrypting their entire police radio communications, police have the ability to use alternative communications to catch an offender that is using an app or scanner to evade capture. Police can use special Tac channels that can be encrypted, police can organize face-to-face meetings prior to an operation, police can use cell phones, police can use cell phone text messages, and police can use mobile data terminals (MDT) in police squad cars to exchange messages. In addition police can discretely switch to alternate communications to catch offenders off guard as the offenders rely on dispatch from the main channel to evade police.
In 2011, Lanier spoke of protecting sensitive information about victims, witnesses or suspects. She doesn’t want hostile actors listening to sensitive police communications. Ironically, police using encrypted radios are more likely to discuss sensitive police communications over a radio that pushes out audibly to all police officers working in a district, or in the case of a citywide communication — all police officers. Since District of Columbia’s MPD has about 3,800 sworn officers, there could be about 1,000 radios across the city with radio speakers that blast out sensitive information. Does Chief Lanier not understand that there is a likely possibility that an audible radio communication on an encrypted radio with sensitive information could accidentally be heard across town by an offender in custody with a police officer on an unrelated incident? With criminal networks, this is not just some inconsequential leak of information. Bystanders at an active police scene can often hear police radio communications — whether encrypted or not. When possible, sensitive information shouldn’t be on any type of radio communication — encrypted or not. When possible, police should switch to one-to-one text or telephone conversations that aren’t broadcast to multiple radios across a whole city.
Quick video of Washington Navy Yard scene https://t.co/QzMqVtoUii
— Peter Doocy (@pdoocy) September 16, 2013
Video from Fox News Peter Doocy at 9:31 a.m. Monday at the Washington Navy Yard. During yesterday’s mass shooting at Building 197, Peter Doocy, who was on the scene by 9:31 a.m. and sent the video (above), reported on some of the voice communications he was hearing on the speakers of police radios nearby — proof that encrypted radios aren’t secure, the instant real sound waves come out of their radio speakers.
In September 2011, local Washington D.C. media representatives expressed that they didn’t have faith in the police department’s ability to share vital information in a timely manner. DC media have complained that MPD has proven slow and unreliable in providing information about crimes and emergencies as they happen. A former Prince George’s County security official also argued years ago that the encrypted radios make it harder for MPD and neighboring jurisdictions to communicate in times of emergency. Lanier made sure she emphasized a good coordinated effort of multi-jurisdictional agencies in the press conference about 10:20 p.m. EDT Monday. She said she was impressed while listening to all of the communications during the operations.
Early in the Washington Navy Yard incident on Monday, September 16, 2013, descriptions for two possible accomplices were released by Washington Metropolitan Police on Twitter almost 30 minutes after the incident. If functioning police scanners and scanner apps were available, that type of information would be available immediately — in real-time. Valuable time is wasted when police spend time on their decision-making process about what should be released, and what should not be released. Lack of information that could be deadly to the public. During that time delay, more citizens could be harmed, and the offenders have a greater chance of escape. Many police departments that have switched to encrypted secret communications haven’t even bothered to setup anything close to real-time Twitter alerts.
DC Police & other agencies are continuing to work Active Shooter @Navy Yard. Please avoid the area
— DC Police Department (@DCPoliceDept) September 16, 2013
This tweet from DC police was posted about 13 minutes after the initial dispatch with no information about possible suspects — plenty of time for offender(s) or accomplice(s) to flee and slip into the community undetected.
Navy Yd Suspects B/M 50 yrs, w/rifle, drab olive military uniform; S2 W/M pistol, Navy-style khaki uniform, short slv,beret call 7279099
— DC Police Department (@DCPoliceDept) September 16, 2013
A post about possible Navy Yard suspects at large was not posted until 10:47 AM EDT — almost 90 minutes after the shooting occurred.
In a recent article in the Star-Telegram in Arlington, Texas, Fire Chief Don Crowson was quoted comparing new P25 digital radios with encryption to an older radio system that “can be heard at any time by anyone, which can put our public safety personnel at risk.” In a life-threatening situation, police have the benefit that they are heavily armed, can call for back-up and move around with authority. Firefighters have the benefit that they are in close communication with police and can stage away from the scene at a safe distance. The public has nothing, and now they’re kept in real-time communications darkness in a community that uses police radio encryption. Who’s the bravest now?
But what about the public being at risk? What about the public getting real time information about dangers that can break out in a community? A mass shooting with suspects at large? Hazardous materials spills? Terrorist release of nerve gas or other hazardous materials?
What happened to “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth?”
Is there really a need to protect all public safety communications, which shuts out the public’s awareness of dangers? Encrypted main police channel communications could be a terrorist’s or fleeing mass shooter’s dream, as it makes it easier for the offenders to flee and slip into a community, as the eyes and ears of the public have no real-time awareness of a problem. Secret encrypted police radios eliminate the chance that a citizen would call 9-1-1 after recognizing a fleeing suspect within minutes of that offender’s escape into society.
Secret encrypted public safety communications also make it possible for terrorists to inflict greater harm on a public that is unaware of dangers as they unfold. Getting information that is 30 minutes old won’t be much help in a sarin gas attack or following sabotage of a chlorine gas tank. Our public safety officials in secret police/fire radio cities could actually be inadvertently inviting and attracting more deadly terrorist attacks.
While encrypted communications are vital for some specialized personnel — for example, members of SWAT teams, bomb squads and narcotics operations — it is not advisable to use encryption for all public-safety communications.
“Encryption was never intended to be a ubiquitous tool that everybody has; if everybody’s got it, there no longer is the security element that you want,” Jorgensen said. “Encryption was intended for high-security risks, not just day-to-day traffic. The cost of encryption is not only the economic costs but the cost of the spectrum that you’re using to perform the encryption, and there’s still a minor degradation [of voice quality] in encryption.
“So, encryption shouldn’t be dealt with as an option, like a green light or a blue light. [You should look at] why I need it, how much am I willing to pay for it, and who really needs it.”
— Craig Jorgensen, former president of the P25 steering committee.
With false hope of providing extra protection to public safety workers, police and some fire officials likely put the public in greater danger with the advent of secret public safety radio communications. Additionally, the public safety personnel might be in greater danger with the “secret” encrypted radios. With open non-encrypted radio systems, police operate on the assumption that the public and media are listening to their communications, and are more careful about what they say over the air. They switch to other methods for sensitive information. With encrypted radio channels, police officers speak over the radios, which are audible over radio speakers to multiple police officers across the city and any criminals in earshot (in custody in a police car, standing in a parking lot while being investigated, as a bystander near police activity, etc.). There is also the chance that criminals could steal a radio, or take a radio by force from a firefighter or police officer. And there’s also the chance that a corrupt cop, most likely a detective that holds a radio at all times, could make the radio communication available to criminals or a criminal organization with their own private Internet stream, or just keep the radio on near an open telephone line. With encryption, the police radio becomes a hotter commodity to organized crime. It’s more dangerous for public safety personnel to mistakenly operate under the assumption that their communications are secure, when those communications really aren’t secure.
Police and fire officials should be embracing police scanner technology, Internet public safety feed technology, and smartphone app technology; not fearing it. The balance of having good citizens have access to every day police communications and encourage citizens to help be the eyes and ears of police, far outweighs so-called security of an entirely encrypted and secret public safety radio system. The heroic measure for public safety officials is to figure out how to organize public safety communications to interface with the public and media, not build a wall that separates public safety personnel from the public like an army of a foreign country.
See also …
Star-Telegram Arlington to spend $10.8 million upgrading public safety radio system
URGENT COMMUNICATIONS Panel: P25 encryption is not for everyone
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