Boston Manhunt: Live on the Internet

Do Unsecure Communications Put Officers at Risk?

During the manhunt for the suspected Boston Marathon bombers in April, hundreds of thousands of people listened to police radio communications live over the Internet as hobbyists rebroadcast messages. Listeners then passed on information via Twitter, so that hundreds of thousands more learned how the hunt was proceeding from their computers, iPhones and BlackBerries, in very close to real time.

Much of that information was mission-critical. More sophisticated attackers could have used it to escape, or to attack again. Over clear channels, police were broadcasting exact details of the perimeters and search areas; officers’ names, badge and vehicle numbers, as well as their locations and when they were going off shift; details of the location and endurance time of the police helicopter; and taskings for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (complete with street addresses).

As the search narrowed to one boat in one backyard, police pleaded over the air with listeners not to tweet details of their pursuit, in case the suspect was monitoring Twitter on a smartphone. Of course, a ­better-prepared attacker would carry his own portable scanner and follow police activity in real time, but no such sophistication is required to monitor Twitter. Desktop and shirt-pocket scanners capable of receiving many public service channels are freely available at stores like The Source ­(formerly Radio Shack).

Why are these communications not secured? The technology exists to encrypt radio traffic, and police services are certainly aware of its value.

In 2011, Washington, D.C. police switched to an encrypted system after officers noticed that criminals seemed to be taking advantage of their communications. In Pasadena, California, a 2102 decision to encrypt police radios sparked a battle with the Star-News newspaper about the public’s right to information that was only resolved months later when the force provided the paper’s newsroom with the keys needed to unlock their system. Fort Collins, Colorado debated the same issues this year, with the same outcome as Pasadena, but Josh Awtry, executive editor of a Colorado newspaper still worried. “An equally large concern weighing on me was that the use of the encrypted traffic would come with strings attached, that access would be taken away if coverage was negative or if we uncovered something others would prefer stay hidden,” he wrote.

Specialized units like tactical teams and surveillance units typically use encrypted systems. Some police forces have locked the public out of their main radio networks with encryption or are in the process of securing their systems, but other police radios are still wide open. Ontario’s Waterloo Regional Police Service, for example, was available to Internet listeners in May. Olaf Heinzel, public affairs coordinator for the force acknowledges that at least one website monitors and rebroadcasts its signals. There are concerns but, “On the other hand, it gives the public a better idea of the type of callouts officers go to.” The force has discussed encryption but there are “huge costs” associated with it. Meanwhile, Heinzel points out that, like many police services in Canada, a great deal of information is passed along to Waterloo Region Police officers in vehicles over secure data terminals.

Elsewhere in Canada, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), like most police forces, uses encrypted systems for specialized units such as the Tactics and Rescue Unit. The main system used by the RNC everyday is not encrypted, but RNC Patrol Services radios do use a system that prevents them from being picked up by scanners.

Public and Officer Safety vs Budget Constraints
The Toronto Police Service is gradually switching over to full encryption, according to Media Relations Officer Victor Kwong. “We have not switched completely because if we switch over completely, we need every single officer to have one of those encrypted radios which, at this moment, we don’t have. It really comes down to budget.” The service is only replacing older radios with encrypted units when they are no longer serviceable. “For us, unless everyone has it, we can’t encrypt because otherwise, we black out our own officers. Once we have the entire service switched over, then we will go encrypted,” Kwong says.

Superintendent Lance Dudar of the Regina Police Service says his force’s radio system was upgraded to the current encrypted system in order to embrace the technological enhancements and advancements that are available. “The switch over was made in 2003. We made a bulk order to cut costs and split costs with the City and the Fire Department,” he explains.

Public and officer safety remain the focus of Regina’s Communication Centre. “Ensuring that our radio transmissions are not intercepted or compromised in any fashion remains paramount to this focus.” Transmissions on the encrypted system are not accessible to the public. However, he admits that “there may be times when it is necessary to revert back to our analogue system making it possible for transmissions to be scanned by the public,” such as brief maintenance or testing requirements.

In Canada, it is illegal for people to intercept radio signals if they are not the intended receiver, but the law is difficult to enforce. Some private citizens and organizations have a legitimate interest in monitoring police communications. Towing companies and media outlets have both ­traditionally monitored public safety radio signals with either the explicit or implied permission of local authorities. Supt. Dudar tells FrontLine that Regina’s police service has sharing agreements with some local media who have purchased a radio system. “They have access to some of our transmissions. However they signed a contract and are very diligent about fact-checking with us about items heard over the radio.”

In addition to concerns about officer safety, some police forces want encrypted radio systems to maintain the privacy of the citizens they serve, and to control rumours that may spread based on incorrect or partial information.

Complex Issue
The Boston Marathon pursuit sounded an alarm to police about radio security. Encryption can secure the communications of one organization but block cooperation between different public safety groups working on the same incident. As security expert Eric Jacksch notes, “Encryption of law enforcement radios is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can protect police conversations from prying ears, and criminals can no longer gain an advantage by ­listening in with an inexpensive scanner. However, it makes inter-agency communication much more complex. We need emergency services to be able to communicate effectively with each other in the event of a terror attack or natural disaster. They’ve learned that lesson the hard way in the United States, and I hope that Canadian agencies are paying attention.”

Richard Bray is the Senior Writer at FrontLine Magazines.
© FrontLine Security 2013