Some Police Departments Reversing Secret Radio Encryption Decision

Several news sources picked up a report from Associated Press on October 11, 2016 about police departments that are reversing their decision to encrypt police radio communications because some police and fire departments are bucking a trend to conceal dispatch communications from the public. They are acknowledging that radio encryption has the potential to backfire and put first responders in danger.

Police in New Orleans; Spokane, Washington; and other cities have vowed not to encrypt their main dispatch channels. Other police departments that previously had encrypted their communications have turned it off.

In an Associated Press release, Dave Collins reports that police in Mansfield, Massachusetts turned off their encryption more than a year ago after officers expressed concern they couldn’t talk with counterparts in some neighboring towns. Mansfield Police Chief Ronald Sellon was interviewed for the report. Mansfield is home to the 20,000-seat Xfinity Center outdoor amphitheater, where there were worries about the ability to communicate with other agencies that did not have encryption capabilities if there was a mass casualty event at the amphitheater.

In 2015, Washington, D.C., officials switched off the encryption for fire communications after firefighters had problems using their radios in a subway tunnel during an emergency response.

The Metro transit agency had a radio system in the subway that allowed a relay to below-ground communications by city firefighters, but communications were blocked during the incident because the fire department had made radio system changes, including changing to an encrypted radio system, and had failed to notify the transit agency that the changes had occurred. Washington D.C. officials denied radio encryption caused the problems.

Communication delays occurred while the tunnel filled with smoke caused by an electrical malfunction, killing one person and sickening dozens more.

AP reports police in Naugatuck, Connecticut, like many departments, are keeping their main dispatch channel open to the public while maintaining encrypted channels to use during tactical operations.

Naugatuck Police Chief Christopher Edson cited the need to be able to communicate with other emergency responders, as well as the expense of encryption, which can cost several hundred dollars per radio to implement. Another issue was not wanting to block out the public, he said.

“We also want to be transparent,” he said, “during this particular climate in the country.”

Arlington Heights police and area police departments in the northwest suburbs have used police radio encryption on all dispatch and tactical channels since June 2013. Northwest suburban fire departments use similar technology as the police radios, but do not have encryption activated. Professional radio scanners used by news agencies capable of monitoring the northwest suburban fire departments are expensive and difficult to program. They require a Windows computer to program, and do not work as well as scanners that monitored previous radio systems. The range is more limited and digital failures often cause messages to be garbled.

Some police and fire departments stream their public dispatch channels on the Internet as official broadcasts. An App known as PulsePoint also alerts people certified in CPR to help them respond to emergencies in public locations, and permits users to listen to official fire department radio dispatches for added safety awareness about the scene. Naperville is the only community in Illinois that uses PulsePoint for CPR alerts and public text messages in the app that also broadcasts part of the fire department’s dispatch as visual messages. However, Naperville Fire Department chose not to connect their radio dispatch communications for the public on the PulsePoint app. Most other fire departments nationwide include the radio communications as part of the app.

Monitoring the fire department allows some awareness of public safety emergencies, but police radio encryption keeps a majority of important and potentially life-saving threatening details hidden from the public. Open police radio communications did not hinder the capture of the San Bernardino terrorists in 2015, but criminals in police radio-encrypted communities can take advantage of the lack of public safety awareness during mass shootings, random shootings and unlawful use of weapon incidents, fleeing suspects, kidnappings, child abductions, domestic batteries, details about sexual assault offenders at large, and any details about any type of assaults or crimes.

Some police agencies are responding to criticism regarding the use of encryption, saying they are addressing concerns from critics who argue encryption decreases police transparency at a time when it is needed, especially in the wake of shootings of unarmed black people by police officers.

“The overwhelming opinion of encryption is that it works great for pre-planned tactical environments like SWAT teams staging a situation,” said Eddie Reyes, deputy chief of Amtrak police and chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee.

“But for day-to-day operations where officers are going across borders in emergency pursuits or foot pursuits, that’s where it tends to break down,” he said. “A good number of agencies are still operating on antiquated systems and would not have the ability to accept encryption.”

When Reyes was working for Alexandria, Virginia, police in 2006, he said, an officer who fatally shot a teenager outside a restaurant inadvertently switched over to encryption mode on his portable radio. There was temporary chaos on the radio when officers en route couldn’t communicate with the officer in the shooting because their radios weren’t in encryption mode, Reyes said.

Sometimes police agencies don’t even trust neighboring police agencies with their encryption keys, even when the neighboring police agency is technologically capable. Cook County Sheriff’s office doesn’t release their radio encryption keys to Arlington Heights and Palatine police officers, even though Arlington Heights and Palatine police officers are frequently called for backup in the unincorporated apartment complex just southeast of Lake Cook Road and Route 53. Information is delayed because it has to be relayed through dispatchers from each agency. A common channel on the State of Illinois system is rarely used because police officers aren’t accustomed to using the State Police channel.

However, all police leaders don’t see encryption as a problem. A slow trend continues toward encryption, despite the fact that it hides communications from public airwaves and news media by modifying voice signals with coded algorithms, prevents people from listening via radio scanners, the Internet and cellphone apps. Only agencies with encryption “keys,” the information needed to unlock the encrypted channels, can listen.

Open government advocates say the practice of police radio encryption withholds crucial information about emergency situations from the public. Concerns also have been raised by news organizations, which complain that it cuts off journalists who monitor public safety broadcasts and hinders their awareness of major events. Police radio encryption is perceived as another block that can create a rift between police and the public.

Pro-encryption police officials say they’re worried about the safety of their officers, because criminals have been known to track officers’ movements by listening to police communications. Police also say they want to prevent the public broadcasting of people’s personal information, including medical histories and juveniles’ names. During the response to the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, people listening to police communications posted misleading and inaccurate information about suspects on social media. Ironically, any personal information broadcast on a radio — including an encrypted radio — can be overheard by people standing near police radio loudspeakers at an active scene. The information for the unintended audience could also be overheard on a police officer’s encrypted personal radio that’s not even involved in the active scene, for example at a Starbuck’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, or any casual situation. Allowing police officers to communicate personal information on channels they believe are concealed, probably allows more detailed information to be communicated on the radio, which allows a more serious security breach to an unintended, albeit smaller audience. Police communicating tactical information on an encrypted main dispatch channel may unintentionally reveal more information than they should because they believe the concealed channel is 100 percent secure. Security experts understand that high-value information needs to be kept off of any type of communications system that broadcasts to hundreds of radios — encrypted or not encrypted.

Police administrators further cite violence against officers around the country over the past few months and hope police radio encryption makes it hard for offenders to know important details about police officers and their activities. Anti-encryption advocates argue that police officers using radios with concealed communications are actually in more danger because the majority of thousands of citizens with good will toward police officers are unaware of any danger that might threaten police officers, or any information that might be helpful to police officers.

Among police departments that have recently encrypted all radio communications are Anchorage, Alaska; Riverside, California; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Newtown, Connecticut where the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting occurred.

“What happened this summer really culminated in making the decision,” Newtown Police Chief James Viadero said, referring to violence against police in Dallas. “I had a legitimate concern for my officers.” The offender in the Dallas police massacre did not use a police radio scanner to track Dallas police officers.

See also …
Newtown Bee Newtown Police Radio Now In Full-Encryption Mode

AP The Big Story Correction: Police Scanners-Access story

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