More Police Encrypting Radios – But It’s Likely to Backfire, Says Expert

In a trend already well underway – but likely to be accelerated by the Boston terrorist incident – more police are moving to encrypt their radios, but the very encryption designed to protect the public could backfire, says an expert
By: Professor John Banzhaf, GWU Law School
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* Washington - District of Columbia - US

WASHINGTON - April 20, 2013 - PRLog -- WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 20, 2013):  In a trend already well underway – but likely to be accelerated by the Boston terrorist incident, the spread of police radios using digital rather than analog broadcasting, and the growing ability of even the most technically unsophisticated to monitor conventional police communications on cell phones – more and more police departments are moving to encrypt their radio communications to prevent eavesdropping by members of the media and public as well as by criminals, but the very encryption designed to protect the public could backfire, says electrical engineer and public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

        In the past, police from many different jurisdictions, as well as fire and rescue, gas and electric companies, bridge and tunnel operators, and many others who respond to emergencies ranging from minor incidents to area-wide catastrophes have often found themselves unable to communicate and coordinate because their conventional (often analog) radios, which were not encrypted, do not send and receive each other's communications, which may well be on very different frequencies.

        That problem could be multiplied many times if radios from different first responder agencies, and those with whom they must be in instant communication, must not only be able to send and receive each other's broadcasts, but also have a coding and decoding mechanism which is current (including up to date codes and security updates/patches) and hasn't yet been penetrated by hackers, argues Banzhaf.

        The problems of using unencrypted police radio communications was dramatically illustrated by the terrorist incident in Boston, including the followup efforts to apprehend the suspects.  During the critical time period from the two explosions until Friday morning, thousands listened to police radio from inexpensive police scanners as well as on Internet web sites.

        All of this information was in turn relayed to an even larger segment of the public through Twitter, Reddit, and other Internet and social media sites, and to the general public by the media which carefully monitors police frequencies.  There, it would be easily and readily available to the two terrorists trying to remain hidden, to friends and members of their families which might be trying to help them, and to any co-conspirators who might be attempting to destroy incriminating evidence, flee, or even further confuse the situation by setting off additional explosions.

        Recognizing these very real dangers, Internet sites like Broadcastify, which provides police chatter from thousands of different law enforcement agencies free to anyone with Internet access or a smart cell phone, announced that it would no longer include police calls from the greater Boston area, saying: "MA State PD and Boston Police have requested via social media to not post search locations for the Boston bombing suspects – the Boston PD feed is temporarily offline due to this request."  Similarly, the Boston Police Department was forced to send the following tweet: "WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched."

        Another problem with encrypting police radio communications is that it makes it much harder for members of the media to report on events of importance to the public, and particularly to seek to uncover and expose any police misconduct which might occur.

        Perhaps that’s why the Society of Professional Journalists has called police scanners “about as necessary in a newsroom as is the pen and notebook.”  Indeed, in an interesting compromise between encrypting police communications to protect officers and the public, and at the same time not completely hobbling the media, the Fort Collins Police Department has agreed that The Coloradoan will get access to its new encrypted police dispatch channel so that it can still report on police-related activities to the public.

        But, argues Banzhaf, such a simplistic solution is unlikely to work in major cities like Boston or the District of Columbia. Greater Boston has more than a dozen towns, each with its own police and fire departments.  The District has more than two dozen law enforcement agencies of its own – ranging from the Metropolitan Police and the FBI to the Secret Service and Park Police – in addition to those in surrounding jurisdictions with whom they may have to coordinate, and hundreds of major news outlets interested in following their various activities.

        The District is a good example of how encryption has already caused problems.  This occurred when the DC Police Department changed to digital encrypted communications, but surrounding jurisdictions like Prince George’s County did not.  Robbers and car jackers in D.C. can literally run across the street to escape into another jurisdiction.  Although D.C. says that it gave the encryption codes to other area jurisdictions, neighboring jurisdictions are reluctant to spend the millions necessary for software upgrades for every officers’ radio to be able to unscramble D.C. police messages.

        Any good encryption system must be constantly upgraded to include new codes, and also – like many computer programs – to correct problems and apply patches as hackers find security loopholes.  Being sure that all cooperating departments and jurisdictions always have the same codes, and have made the necessary upgrades, is of course a major problem, says Banzhaf, a former electrical engineer and inventor.

        “As a former engineer, I’m a great believer in Murphy’s Law: ‘if something can go wrong, it will.’  Despite the best efforts of its supporters, any system to get everyone in a major metropolitan area into one encrypted communications system is bound to fail from time to time, possibly at the very time when instant communication and close coordination is most vital.”

        On the other hand, says Banzhaf, perhaps encrypted police radio transmissions are a great deal like police dogs.  They provide a major advantage to law enforcement, but occasionally they can bite you in the ass.

Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
2000 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052, USA
(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418 @profbanzhaf
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