Scanner silence: Buncombe Sheriff’s department encrypts radio traffic for officer safety

CODE TALKER: The Sheriff’s Department has replaced its radios with new Motorola units like the APX 4500, above, now in all their vehicles. The shift has allowed the agency to to encrypt its internal communications. The shielded traffic protects officers and operations, but it brings complications. Image from Motorola Solutions

Civilians all over the country are eavesdropping on law enforcement radio traffic. But the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department is no longer willing to tolerate it here. And the Asheville Police Department is moving in the same direction. However, for the time being, there may be a hiccup with communication.

As of Friday, April 15, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department switched to a system that encrypts all the department’s two-way radio communications, making the department’s radio traffic unavailable for everyone besides BCSD personnel and a few APD officers on the joint DWI task force.

Why the inaccessible format? “Quite frankly, it’s a safety and security issue,” says Sheriff Van Duncan. “We had a lot of folks who were posting on Facebook and other [social media] real-time information about where we were and what officers were doing in the middle of looking for suspects.”

A particular incident, a robbery of Jared — Galleria of Jewelry, led the sheriff to realize officers needed a more secure way of communicating.  “[Suspects] were on the loose in the Leicester community,” Duncan recalls, “and we were in contact with the community, but somebody was posting as they usually did, verbatim, everything we were doing, real time. … That causes some real security issues for officers and also could work negatively toward our efforts if we are after a wanted person or somebody we think could be dangerous to the public or dangerous to our officers.”

BCSD regularly ran into problems with real-time social-media postings, according to Duncan. He adds that the department has, in the past, also encountered suspects crafty enough to use scanners to keep tabs on the police pursuing them. Another key reason, he says, for encryption was to protect private information, such as vehicle registration details.

While the move will keep civilian listeners from causing problems for the sheriff’s department, it also is now keeping some other agencies from being able to hear their traffic. “The Asheville Police Department does not currently have any encrypted radio channels,” according to Christina Hallingse, the APD public information officer. “Until our radios are reprogrammed, we are unable to communicate with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office via APD radios, with the one exception of our DWI Task Force, which employs both Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Deputies.”

Natalie Bailey, Hallingse’s counterpart at the sheriff’s department, seems to disagree. “Switching to an encrypted system has not hampered working with our partners at the Asheville Police Department or any other area law enforcement agency,” she says.

The Sheriff likewise maintains that, although the communication systems do not perfectly mesh, interdepartmental communication is not negatively impacted by the encryption. He says that because of a long-standing difference in radio systems, interdepartmental radio traffic has had to be patched through and similar processes are still possible.

The Asheville police does see value of secure communications. Hallingse says, “In order to ensure officer safety, the Asheville Police Department plans to transition to encrypted radio channels. However, at this time, we do not have a timeline for this transition.”

Whatever the state of communications between the two agencies, APD has been discussing BCSD’s planned switch for several months, according to Hallingse.

Good for the public?

Monitoring public safety traffic is legal, and many people find it useful. Western North Carolinians are no exception. In some cases, there’s a passionate following who — if not getting news directly from radio scanners tuned to emergency frequencies — are getting information from others who are trawling the radio waves [See Brave new (news) world Mountain Xpress, June 17,2015].

Among those who make a habit of listening here in Buncombe, there is some debate as to whether encrypting law enforcement channels is a good idea. One’s point of view seems to depend on whose interests are at stake. Many in the scanner-monitoring community support the decision because it protects officers, but others are concered about the flow of information to the public. Members of the Facebook group known as Asheville Area Radio Scanner Activity who responded to Xpress‘ request for feedback on the Sheriff’s Department decision spoke mostly in support of the move. Many were underwhelmed by the decision. “It is what it is,” several respondents said. Most regarded the change as a positive one, for officer safety and because otherwise criminals may be listening in.

“As one of the admins on this group,” Raymond Joe Pressley says, “I think it is a wise decision. Like Nick [another member] said, it keeps the criminals from hearing what is going on. It potentially could also save lives of officers. Sooner or later, all the organizations will be radio-silent for scanners.”

He could be right. In most of Europe, public safety units utilize Terrestrial Trunked Radio, which offers secure communication. Although according to an “All Things Considered” piece last month on NPR, while most European police talk isn’t on open frequencies, American agencies are slow to move to encryption because of various concerns such as cost of equipment and “interoperability,” meaning ability to communicate with other agencies who may use other systems.

Irresponsible media use of the information is another argument for encryption of law enforcement radio traffic. Freelance photographers who track down emergency scenes and the sensationalist news model that thrives on their content are not the standard around here. However, material that is disturbing and sensitive can be picked up on scanners and is then reported on social media if not the mainstream media. One anonymously sent email from a member of the local scanner Facebook group said he/she is “grateful Buncombe County has implemented an encrypted system of communication for the privacy of everyone.” The emailer works in a funeral home and reported being shocked to recognize the address of a shotgun suicide reported via scanner and social media while typing up the obituary. “Anyone on Facebook in that group and who knew the family found out, in a Facebook group, the nature of this young man’s death. The family needed their privacy, and it was not anyone else’s business to post the nature of his death.”

On the other hand, mainstream media do rely on information coming from police radio talk, even if it isn’t firsthand. Some local TV and radio outlets get information from Total Traffic Network, an Atlanta-based company that monitors scanners and follows up on such information to provide traffic reports.

At least a few local scanner enthusiasts don’t support law enforcement using encrypted radio traffic. For them, the potential good does not outweigh the potential problems. Steven Briggs, an amateur radio operator with friends and family in emergency services, has been monitoring radio scanners for over 30 years, He finds the encryption move surprising because encryption may reduce the potential for civilians helping law enforcement with tips. He is also skeptical about the argument that criminals can use the information from scanners to outmaneuver police. “There are few [criminals] that do this in the first place, and those that have used a scanner in the commission of a crime and have ambushed, assaulted or killed an officer would be an even smaller percentage than that — if it has happened at all.  I’ve never heard of it happening, anyway,” Briggs says.

He points out that the state’s largest counties, aren’t so secretive. Wake County Sheriff’s Department only encrypts their Tactical and SWAT channels, according to RadioReference.com, meanwhile Mecklenburg County remains unencrypted. Their dispatch channels are clear, meaning anyone with the proper equipment can leagally hear them — unlike encrypted traffic, which is illegal (and thus far, basically impossible) for the unauthorized to decode.

Jason Holland administers the Twitter account Asheville Scanner. Until last week, when he was temporarily removed from the Asheville Area Radio Scanner Activity Facebook group, his Twitter feed distributed posts from that group. Holland believes, “Information should be free.” He’s concerned that encryption will create a black market for access to the information.

He commented on Facebook, “An encrypted signal is going to bring people out of the woodwork looking to decode the radios (this is already happening).” He also warns, “The public and the media should be able to see how the police address the problems they’re faced with in real time. There’s also a public safety issue. If the media isn’t able to get real-time information from the scanner, it could prevent one from having the ability to get that information to a large community (think gas leak or mass shooting).”

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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11 thoughts on “Scanner silence: Buncombe Sheriff’s department encrypts radio traffic for officer safety

  1. boatrocker

    Hooray for transparency!

    I’m sure the same percentage of bad guys who listen to radio traffic in order to lay in wait for a Sherriff’s deputy is about the same as those who commit voter fraud in NC or those who dress in drag in order to molest children in bathrooms.

    Where is the far right indignation at gub’ment over reach of a perfectly legal activity?

    More importantly, what will senior citizens listen to while getting a once a week haircut in many local barbershops around town?

    • bsummers

      I’m torn on this issue. On the one hand, sure, ‘transparency’. On the other hand, I’ve always found it amazing that law enforcement radio communications aren’t encrypted. These people are doing a sometimes dangerous job which we need for them to be able to do well.

      That being said, as someone who has strongly advocated for greater citizen oversight of local law enforcement, in the absence of that, maybe we should be able to monitor them via radio.

      Like I say, I’m torn.

      • boatrocker

        Bsummers, quit empathizing with cops.

        They sure as hell don’t empathize for you as a law abiding citizen.

        That is why “to serve and protect” is in quotes, as in an it is not true.

        More like
        “To Generate Revenue For the Out of Control Post Patriot Act Executive Branch Staffed by Steroid Infused PTSD Bullies With Zero Accountability Who Declare War on American Citizens Who Pay Their Salary”- but we the people would need a longer car to paint that on.

        • Big Al

          Is anyone surprised that Boatrocker takes the side of criminal elements against Law Enforcement?

          • boatrocker

            It’s boatrocker, goofball- and Big Al’s posts somehow remind me of the kid in high school that said
            “Oh yeah? when i grow up I’m gonna be a cop or join the military and declare war on the very people who grudgingly pay my salary for giving up their rights under the Patriot Act (wiping the tears and runny nose).

            Cuz the military and cops always tell the truth and you can always trust the Executive branch of the gubment who rob us of tax dollars- unless Big Al would care to prove me wrong?

            I get it. You have a thing for boys in uniform. I get it too- you still think we ‘weren’t allowed to win in Vietnam”.
            I get it. You think “Red Dawn’ was a true story.

            Do you get this? the USA has not one a war since 1945 (we had a lot of help) and our cops are out of control.

    • sick_of_perversion

      How did we get from channel encryption to perverts wanting access to the wrong bathroom? If a person can’t tell what sex they are from the obvious indicators, then they need a serious mental health evaluation.

  2. If Jason Holland was posting what he was hearing on the scanner on any media he was in violation of a law that states you may not divulge any public service communication to anyone who is not a party to the communication, but I know people do it all the time. Even if you’re just telling a friend about something you heard on your scanner you’re in violation of the law if they weren’t one of the people in the radio conversation. I don’t remember the exact statute number, but I do remember reading it in the paperwork enclosed with a new scanner radio I bought.

    • XD9611

      Cliff Fox incorrect. According to the FCC (https://www.fcc.gov/es/node/23895) you are allowed to monitor AND divulge public service communications.

      What kinds of interception and divulgence of radio transmissions are legal?
      The FCC and the Communications Act do not forbid certain types of interception and disclosure of radio communications, including:
      Mere interception of radio communications, such as overhearing your neighbor’s conversation over a cordless telephone, or listening to emergency service reports on a radio scanner…

  3. Cliff Fox

    XD9611 Incorrect – That statute or rule (https://www.fcc.gov/es/node/23895) does not specifically mention “public service communications” in the allowed or prohibited communications in either the interception and divulgence of radio transmissions that are legal or those that are not legal. On the contrary, it states Federal and state laws make intercepting and divulging radio communications “illegal and punishable by severe criminal penalties”, with certain exceptions, none of which mentioned are public service communications.

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