Manchester, N.H.'s Encryption of Police Scanner Transmissions Raises Questions

The department believes the identities of alleged crime victims, which can be revealed in some radio transmissions, should remain private. But at least in New Hampshire, fully encrypting police radio communications appears to be uncommon.

by Xander Landen, The Keene Sentinel, N.H. / October 17, 2016
Manchester PD

(TNS) — MANCHESTER, N.H. — Last month, Manchester, N.H., police transmissions accessible to anyone with a radio scanner became unintelligible to those outside the department.

After upgrading its citywide radio system, the department decided to encrypt its transmissions, making it impossible for citizens to listen to Manchester police broadcasts on scanners or smartphone apps.

The reason, according to a statement the department released in September, is to protect police officers and “the public’s privacy.”

The department believes the identities of alleged crime victims, which can be revealed in some radio transmissions, should remain private, according to the statement.

The department also started encrypting so the locations of on-duty officers won’t be revealed over the radio. This will help prevent people from following officers and interfering with their duties at a time when police are increasingly becoming targets of violence, the statement said.

But the move to radio silence raises questions.

What exactly are the dangers posed by un-encrypted police communications? Are Monadnock Region departments considering encrypting their broadcasts? And what are the broader implications of cloaking information that’s previously been publicly accessible?

The statement by the Manchester Police Department described the radio system to which it had upgraded, the Motorola APX7000L, as “state of the art” technology “being used across the country by many police agencies.”

But at least in New Hampshire, fully encrypting police radio communications appears to be uncommon.

According to a Sept. 18 report from the N.H. Union Leader, “few if any” police departments in the state fully encrypt their radio communications or intend to do so after Manchester’s decision.

But improved scanner technology and smartphone apps with the ability to pick up police radio frequencies have become more accessible to the public in recent years, according to police officials. And this has led to a trend in some parts of the country for departments to use encryption.

Most police departments that have the capacity to encrypt their radio communications do so with software that scrambles their transmissions. To radios outside the police department, the encrypted transmissions sound either silent or garbled.

The Sentinel spoke with representatives from four police departments in Cheshire County. None of them fully encrypt radio communications, although two have at least a limited capacity to do so.

None of these departments have immediate plans to fully encrypt their radio communications, though all see value in the ability to make certain police broadcasts private.

Almost all radio broadcasts from the Keene Police Department can be picked up by police scanners, according to Chief Brian Costa.

But the department has the ability to encrypt transmissions and does so on occasion, he said.

Encryption can be turned on “at the click of a button,” according to Costa. It’s a simple matter of activating software that does the job.

Keene police use the technology only during certain tactical operations, or when revealing an officer’s or civilian’s location could put someone in danger, he said.

Costa described a hypothetical hostage situation as a case when encryption might be used; if Keene police are setting up a perimeter around a house where a person’s being held captive, they would likely encrypt the radio communications.

Doing so would help prevent the criminal — who could be trying to listen for officers’ whereabouts on a police scanner — from being aware of their presence.

For this same reason, specialized State Police units, including the narcotics and SWAT teams, use encrypted radio communications during all of their operations, according to N.H. State Police Sgt. Daniel Brow of the Keene-based Troop C.

The rest of State Police radio communications can be heard over scanners, for the most part, he said.

State Police, at least in Troop C, have the ability to encrypt their communications, but don’t do so often, according to Brow.

The encrypting technology is a “hassle” to use, he said, adding that he can’t remember the last time he cloaked his own broadcasts.

State Police officers must press a button in their cruisers at the same time to activate it, he said. Otherwise, the encrypted communications will sound garbled and unintelligible for those who haven’t turned on the feature.

“Logistically, it just becomes a nightmare,” he said.

Although State Police have no plans to fully encrypt radio communications, Brow said he’d support the idea. He called the state of un-encrypted radio communications “a major safety issue,” giving a potential advantage to criminals listening on scanners or smartphones.

“We don’t like people to know that we’re coming,” he said.

To avoid releasing sensitive information over the radio that might jeopardize someone’s safety, officers will communicate on their cellphones, he said.

Like Brow, Rindge Police Chief Todd Muilenberg supports full police radio encryption.

But today, his department isn’t capable of doing it. And with an “extremely limited” budget, the Rindge department doesn’t have any plans to upgrade its radio system to encrypt anytime soon, according to Muilenberg.

He said the department’s un-encrypted radio communications have left officers vulnerable in certain situations.

The department has received tips in the past that juveniles lighting tire fires, destroying property and littering public spaces with toilet paper have used scanners on smartphone apps to try to evade police, according to Muilenberg.

“They are actually monitoring our channels to see where we are and how we are responding to that call,” he said.

Muilenberg said he doesn’t see the importance of keeping police broadcasts available to the public.

“I don’t think there’s a need for everybody to be listening to emergency radio traffic.”

Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Washington-based Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he’s never heard of police radio encryption violating any public records or open meetings laws.

However, he’s heard that the number of departments in the U.S. that are fully encrypting their radio communications is rising, and he cited a police movement to do so throughout Alaska.

A December 2015 article by the Washington Post about police radio encryption listed departments in Washington, D.C., New York, California and Florida using the technology.

Although encryption’s not illegal, Marshall said it can seriously restrict journalists’ ability to cover important news events in their communities. Reporters often rely on police scanners to stay aware of crime and public safety issues.

“Even if it’s not strictly a public records issue, that doesn’t mean that there’s no public interest in having access to police scanners,” he said.

Others also believe there’s a public interest in keeping police communications un-encrypted.

On Oct. 2, Carla Gericke, a candidate for N.H. Senate District 20 (Manchester and Goffstown) and a leader of the Free State Project, organized a rally against the Manchester Police Department’s decision to encrypt.

In a news release for the rally, she said un-encrypted communications are needed to keep the police department accountable.

“Hiding behind encryption while increasing the use of military tactics is dangerous to a free and open society,” she said in the release. “We have a right to know what our police department is up to.”

Jaffrey police Chief William Oswalt sees a different value in keeping police radio communications public.

Like Rindge, his department has no encryption capabilities. Oswalt said his department often receives helpful tips from people listening to the police scanner who might know information about crimes or other unfolding scenarios.

But he doesn’t fully support un-encrypted communications and called them “a double-edged sword.”

Occasionally, people listening to the scanner in Jaffrey, tipped off to the locations of police officers, will start to follow them around and try to “initiate problems,” he said.

Keene police have experienced the same thing, according to Costa. But none of the resulting interactions have escalated or become dangerous for officers, he said.

They also haven’t convinced him his department needs to fully encrypt its radio communications.

But if the nature of these interactions changed, he said, so would his views on encryption.

“If it ever crossed the line where officers’ safety was in danger, we would consider it,” Costa said.

©2016 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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