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Encryption Security United States News

Police Encrypt Radios To Tune Out Public 242

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Police departments around the country are moving to shield their radio communications from the public as cheap, user-friendly technology has made it easy for anyone to use handheld devices to keep tabs on officers responding to crimes and although law enforcement officials say they want to keep criminals from using officers' internal chatter to evade them, journalists and neighborhood watchdogs say open communications ensures that the public receives information as quickly as possible that can be vital to their safety. 'Whereas listeners used to be tied to stationary scanners, new technology has allowed people — and especially criminals — to listen to police communications on a smartphone from anywhere,' says DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier who says that a group of burglars who police believe were following radio communications on their smartphones pulled off more than a dozen crimes before ultimately being arrested. But encryption also makes it harder for neighboring jurisdictions to communicate in times of emergency. 'The 9/11 commission concluded America's number one vulnerability during the attacks was the lack of interoperability communications,' writes Vernon Herron, 'I spoke to several first responders who were concerned that their efforts to respond and assist at the Pentagon after the attacks were hampered by the lack of interoperability with neighboring jurisdictions.'"
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Police Encrypt Radios To Tune Out Public

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  • Scanner Proof... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:28PM (#38151886) Journal

    Encryption also makes the conversations unavailable to portable scanners, as well as the internet audio feeds to smartphones. These have been around a lot longer. It is just the recent upsurge in people using the scanner audio streaming apps that is feeding this latest FUD. In my state there is a concerted statewide effort to get all local municipalities on the state-wide system, which can very easily use encryption if the local agency wants to. This is aimed at "fixing" interoperability by having everyone on the same system using the same keys.

  • Re:Well (Score:5, Informative)

    by jrmcferren ( 935335 ) <[robbie.mcferren] [at] []> on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:30PM (#38151908) Journal

    No, they will win a trip to federal PMTIA prison as decrypting communications without authorization is a violation of the communications act of 1934 as amended as well as other laws.

  • Re:Took long enough (Score:5, Informative)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:33PM (#38151950) Homepage Journal

    Not a radio operator are you? Digital systems don't work so well with interference or weak signals. On a digital system you'd end up with garbage or silence where without the cipher and digital codec, you might actually be able to hear them through the noise. So, there is a distinct advantage to open analog.

    That said, encryption certainly has it's place. Squad-level tactical circuits for SWAT, for example.

  • by Known Nutter ( 988758 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:47PM (#38152102)

    Yes, there's an app for that.

    Basically, you've got it right. Folks around the world have scanners plugged into streaming software on their computers which stream up to a centralized service. serves up the majority of these feeds. RR provides a API whereby any app developer can access the streams.... thus there are many apps on all platforms for monitoring public safety agencies in most areas of the US.

    Part of the argument against streaming police radio feeds in this way is obvious. It provides the bad guys a quick and easy way to listen in, where in the past you had to purchase a scanner or two, know how to use it, etc. etc... accordingly, some in the scanning community have advocated for a delay built into the stream (5-15 minutes, say) in an effort to appease law enforcement into not going encrypted. I think the damage is done though as more and more agencies continue to go digital/encrypted, mostly on the back of grants funded by federal US tax dollars.

  • Re:Scanner Proof... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:48PM (#38152118) Journal

    They do, sort of. Trunked radio systems use "talkgroups" which are isolated group-call (multicast) messages aimed at specific radios. You can send a voice "message" (transmission) to a specific radio if needed, but normal transmission go to the entire talkgroup. You would have Fire on one, Police dispatch on one, detectives on one, etc. That way they normally only get traffic they are interested in, but in an emergency they would all switch to a "city-wide" talkgroup so everone would hear everything. They also can reserve the talkgroups to be forced encryption or forced non-encrypted (clear) in case someone doesn't have the proper keys.

    There are also common clear channels reserved for interoperability nation-wide in the 800 MHz band just in case someone outside the state needs to join in the fun.

  • Re:Well (Score:4, Informative)

    by Known Nutter ( 988758 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:49PM (#38152136)

    I don't really believe there is a basis in fact for your statement.

    Keep in mind that many agencies (not all) which do encrypt provide subscriber units to the media. In either case, someone is always listening.

  • by ehrichweiss ( 706417 ) * on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @04:59PM (#38152286)

    Most of the police departments are moving to APCO P25 which just so happens to be extremely vulnerable to a simple hack... []

  • Sine and Tetra... (Score:5, Informative)

    by MindPrison ( 864299 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @05:02PM (#38152350) Journal

    Man...even though I know a lot more about this than the average Slashdot audience, your idiot mods are probably going to mod me out into -1000 troll territory for saying what I'm about to say, but guess what - bring it on mods, you're morons...not I can afford it...

    Not a single person of you here, know what the SINE or TETRA system is...but I'm going to explain it to you. (gawd knows why...)...but I'm all for information to the public, so I'm going to tell...

    In Scandinavia the police use Sine and Tetra. The radios are developed by Motorola and often called "Spectra". (google it if you must), these have a specific software & hardware encryption system. It works something like this - every unit has a GPS built in, in's kind of like a 10 year old cell-phone with a GPS, pretty crappy screens, but it does sport TETRA and SINE, an infra-system that is very difficult to crack (but HAS been cracked, with a 32-piece FPGA this, I don't care what you know), or you could use an average pc. to crack one minute of conversation in 1 hour if you don't care to have it real-time.

    The thing is...the police wanted a system that was interconnected with the Fire-department, Hospital & Ambulance, and lock out any of the public listeners as they could be drug-distributors, thieves & criminals...but things didn't exactly go according to plans, the system failed numerous times, and they had to revert to their old systems (which...btw...also had an analog&digital encryption option...that still hasn't been cracked...)

    However....this new system had a downside...namely people! People all over the country was used to owning and listening to police know...analog signals...kind of like your FM or CB radio...for years, like the last 30 years...these where gone now, everything was SINE (tetra) and digital, so no layman out there could listen in (unless they where geeks, and purchased the very expensive 16x2 (32) FPGA cards for their pcs...and installed the geeky software) realtime, so the police didn't get the info on they usually got from the faithful legal scanner listeners...they used to get information from.

    What do I mean by this? Imagine your average joe out there, wanting some action, purchasing a Scanner...he listens in....hears the police talking about some criminal in his neighborhood...he looks outside the window...discovers the purp...calls the police, and informs..

    Now...he can't do that anymore, because it's encrypted...

    The only people who can do this the Drug barons with a lot of money to buy the Open-Source 32-FPGA cards that are available to the public...and eliminating the average JOE from listening in...helping the police.. ...I bet the authorities didn't see that one coming.

  • Re:reason 328 (Score:4, Informative)

    by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @05:13PM (#38152478)

    Well this of course could easily be solved by national standards dictated from Washington tied to various financial incentives. We couldn't do that during the Bush administration because "we don't want the government picking winners and losers" so instead we had 11 years of no progress. Now we could just pick a good solution and go with it.

    And that is, of course, why the APCO P25 digital standard wasn't developed during the Bush years and didn't become a standard required by federal funding agencies for new purchases.

    And that is why, in this modern, standards-friendly administration, we are now adding MotoTrbo and Tetra as alternative (non-interoperable) digital standards.

    This issue is not new, and it is not surprising. Not to anyone who actually has to deal with it. Everyone talks about "interoperability" and how great it is, but then we push for ever-fancier technology which is inherantly NOT interoperable, or interoperable only at a huge price.

    For example, moving from 150MHz VHF to 700MHz. Under 150MHz VHF analog (or even digital) I can bring MY radio to an incident, and as long as I have the right frequency and digital "squelch" programmed in, I can participate. With 700MHz, my radio might not even have the right digital format, and it will not talk to the existing system because the system will lock it out. Not to mention that if I want to talk to my people there, I will have to have my 150MHz radio, and then a 700MHz radio to talk to other people. Two radios.

    Yes, there is movement towards multi-band public service radios, but that's the "huge price" I'm referring to. A digital single-band radio will run about $1500 for a reasonable version. A multi-band starts at $5k and goes up. That's not to say a high-feature single band is cheap -- the latest handhelds CAP distributed are list price $4500 or more.

    Interoperability used to mean "everyone can talk to each other" directly. Now it means "everyone might be able to find someone they can talk to that can also talk to someone else", or at best, "someone will have a portable linking system that will link two systems together." It's more of a nightmare now than it was ten years ago.

  • Re:Publish Them (Score:4, Informative)

    by wheels4me ( 871935 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @05:22PM (#38152568)
    Seriously? How can you be that naive on /,? The US Attorney in Seattle can't get SPD video. He had to take the SPD to court to get video and still likely never got all of what he asked for. Who has the "right credentials"? Certainly not the local ABC affiliate, KOMO TV. They sued and got jacked around. "In October of 2008, Rachner was arrested while out with friends. Police stopped them, and Rachner refused to identify himself, which is not legally mandatory. He was arrested for obstruction of justice. One officer bragged to colleagues he arrested Rachner because he “acted edjumicated.” Rachner filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Accountability, the civilian-run oversight organization of the Seattle Police Department. Immediately after he filed the complaint, the city filed obstruction charges against Rachner that were later dropped because the prosecution lacked proof. Rachner received one dash-cam video recorded from a police cruiser’s dashboard camera during his criminal case but learned of six others that police refused to release. Rachner sued the Seattle police in 2008 for covering up the existence of the six other videos from the night of his arrest and other records pertaining to his case. He won a judgement against them in 2010, but filed a subsequent lawsuit on Oct.6, 2011, for false arrest, “spoilation of video evidence” and “malicious prosecution.” According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Police Department is currently under federal investigation for not releasing video evidence from dash-cams when requested. Seattle news station KOMO, an ABC affiliate, filed a lawsuit against the SPD in September, claiming that the SPD had knowingly violated the Washington state Public Records Act. U.S. Attorney Mike McKay of Seattle has also sued the SPD for refusing to release records about criminal investigations and arrests." I would far and away rather have a few more property crimes than leave in a secret police state.
  • Re:Scanner Proof... (Score:4, Informative)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @05:23PM (#38152580) Homepage Journal

    The point is when the negotiator is trying to talk them down, you don't want them to hear the radio chatter about the team getting ready to shoot him if it fails. That jacks his stress right up, and makes it much more likely he'll panic and do something stupid, getting people killed or hurt.

    You can wait an hour to find out what Officer Joe said.

  • Re:Scanner Proof... (Score:4, Informative)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @05:32PM (#38152666) Homepage Journal

    No, he isn't. The whole job of the negotiator is to bring it down then try to talk them out. If their stress is firewalled the whole time, then that negotiator is doing a very poor job.

    And remember, I'm not saying encrypt it and never ever release the key. I'm only talking about delaying. We still get our oversight, and they still get their operational security.

  • by transporter_ii ( 986545 ) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 @06:23PM (#38153272) Homepage

    Well, I'm currently installing P25 systems in different counties -- and I also think we are moving toward a police state -- but I actually don't think the motive here is to hide communications. Most agencies we have converted are not using encryption, though the scanners are expensive. Most seem to care less about being able to encrypt.

    I think they were sold a buzz word. The systems cost a fortune. Due to the nature of digital radio, they work well, or not at all. If you work for the city water system, that's fine. When you work for the police, not working at all is a huge problem. Several firefighters were killed somewhere up north because nobody heard their calls for help.

    To get radios with federal grant money, the radios have to be P25 compliant. However, there is zero law that says they have to be used in digital mode. All the radios work in analog mode. All the systems we have put in will work in digital and analog mode. But no matter what the complaint of the new systems are, they can't reach over two inches and talk in analog. Why? Because it isn't a buzz word. I honestly don't think it has a thing to do with anything but that. It would almost be funny if the radios didn't cost hundreds of dollars more than their old radios.

    See also: Google about the planned nationwide 700 Mhz system for public safety. It was falling through the cracks but Senator Jay Rockefeller is now trying to get the project going again. The Rockefeller family has a lot of power in Motorola. Who wants to guess how much money he/his family is probably getting in a round about way through Motorola.

    This isn't about public safety. This is about multimillion dollar deals to enrich the same old a country that is flat broke.

    But hey, I'll still cash my paycheck! :)

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford