Radio Encryption and Public Transparency


January 18, 2022 by Omna Solomon, Senior Consultant

For decades media, police watchdogs, engaged citizens and radio hobbyists have used police scanners to listen to law enforcement radio communications. The ability to scan radio communications provides a means for transparency, accountability and public awareness. Municipalities recognize this need for transparency, to value civic engagement, and to rely on the media to disseminate essential incident and disaster information to the general public. In many cases, the media is in fact the primary conduit for disseminating information to the public about hazardous events and emergencies; for instance, the media is vital in notifying and updating citizens about an active shooter scenario. However, the widespread prevalence of web and mobile applications that make real-time police communications readily available to everyone has clearly placed a burden on maintaining the safety of law enforcement personnel and has compromised critical tactical law enforcement operations that rely on stealth for success. In addition, sensitive, protected and personal citizen information is frequently transmitted in support of law enforcement operations; these types of data should not be broadcast openly. Therefore, many law enforcement agencies are taking steps to balance the need for public awareness and transparency with the safety of officers and protection of sensitive citizen information.

Federal Statutes and Global Policies

In addition to officer safety, Federal policies and guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) stipulate the use of encryption particularly when transmitting Criminal Justice Information (CJI) restricted information and most combinations of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) (See FBI CJIS Security Policy Section 5.10 and 5.13). As local law enforcement increasingly relies on protected FBI criminal databases for their day-to-day duties, the encryption of at least some radio traffic is imperative.

Prospective Approaches For Sharing Encrypted and Sensitive Radio Communications

Law enforcement and municipalities have taken various approaches as discussed below with the underlying mindset of making police radio communications available in real-time to the media and general public, while still protecting critical or sensitive information and assuring officer safety.

  • Establish a Public Information Officer (PIO) position tasked with utilizing various methods including social media and traditional media platforms to make near real-time announcements of events involving police activity and potentially jeopardizing citizen safety. The PIO would be required to collaborate proactively with local media. It should be noted that this approach is more suited to large agencies with resources.
  • Issue Secure Radios to Media: Provide equipment to established media outlets that can decode encrypted radio information. This process will require media personnel to obtain the same certifications as municipal employees who have access to CJI and PII.
  • Be Responsive to Public Records Requests: Ensure the process for requesting and obtaining public records, specifically recorded radio communications audio, does not have undue delays. A timely and streamlined approach, similar to how many agencies provide video records may be acceptable.
  • Issue Frequent Crime Reports: Publish near daily reports on noteworthy criminal and law enforcement activity.
  • Use a Hybrid approach with both Encrypted and Clear communications: Some agencies use clear channels for all primary dispatch and have opted to use an encrypted channel only when sensitive information is involved (PII, CJI, or if the information compromises tactical operations). However, this requires switching back and forth from a secure to a clear channel in a fluid and evolving situation which can be operationally burdensome.
  • Provide/Stream Slightly Delayed Audio: Another approach is to implement equipment that delays audio by a few minutes to ensure the type of radio traffic won’t comprise a live incident or active investigation.

Key Implementation Considerations

Whichever approach is selected, it is important that the process for encrypting communications is itself transparent and consultative. In many instances, police scanners simply went silent without any formal announcement, causing consternation among both the media and the general public. Some potential approaches are:

  • Consult the Media: In passing statutes for encrypting communications, the State of Colorado, for instance, requires that the local agencies consult directly with the media on suitable and viable approaches in advance of encrypting audio traffic. This process should also consider the general public.
  • Consider Formal Legislation or Policy: Enact, in a consultative method, statutes or memoranda detailing the importance of securing sensitive information and the proposed process for transparency. It should be clear whether agencies that encrypt audio are doing so at their sole discretion, to adopt existing federal or state guidance, or to conform with local statutes. To ensure consistency statewide, a State statute is preferable.
  • Verify Consistency with Existing Public Records Laws: In adopting the FBI guidance, some localities have inadvertently violated their own public records laws. Therefore, a review of state and local laws for consistency is recommended with possible amendments to related legislation.
  • Coordinate with Other Law Enforcement Counterparts: By encrypting radio traffic, an agency could also be severing interoperability with its own neighbor’s law enforcement agencies. Therefore, a regional plan that includes federal or other key counterparts including other first responder agencies like Fire and EMS should be developed.