A California Department of Justice mandate from a year ago is going into effect in many police stations as police radios are becoming more and more encrypted across the state.
The California DOJ bulletin called for law enforcement to implement radio encryption protocols to protect personally identifiable information (PII) such as names and driver’s licenses. So far, the Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Francisco Police Department have at least partially encrypted their radio transmissions, which has led to concern among those of the public who make use of that information – namely the news media.
Following the move, the California Attorney General’s Office said that law enforcement should take “any necessary steps” to help reporters receive information.
“We generally would encourage law enforcement, in line with those requirements (to protect PII), to take any necessary steps to assist reporters in accessing the information they need to carry out their important work,” the AG’s press office said in a statement. “It is ultimately up to each agency to determine the appropriate approach.”
A requirement for using the California Law Enforcement Transmissions System (CLETS) is to take steps to protect PII, which can be done via encryption or other means. Officers use the system to gain access to driver’s records or individuals’ criminal histories. Since the DOJ’s reminder, police departments have opted to encrypt their transmissions.
Some departments have managed to implement partial encryptions. For example, the SFPD only encrypts transmissions regarding driver’s records, license plate information, criminal history and other personal information.
According to SFPD spokesman Adam Lobsinger, the public can still hear dispatchers send officers on calls and hear how the call ends via the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), although they miss some of the personal details.
“Effectively all police department traffic will be encrypted, Lobsinger said. “Almost no police radio traffic will be heard, and what is left unencrypted is going to be on the Department of Emergency Management side,” he said.
In addition, because the SFPD has switched from analog to digital radios, listeners must use a compatible Project 25, phase 2 scanner to hear the broadcasts.
The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, which routes 911 calls to police and fire units, assured that listeners can still hear information about incidents like shootings, along with their location, in addition to officer-initiated events like traffic stops from dispatchers.
Privacy law experts noted their concern about the encryption, arguing that police radio traffic is a necessary public resource.
“These radio transmissions are an important window the public has into what police do,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
Not all departments are on board with the encryption protocols. For instance, the LAPD has only partially encrypted sensitive information, and the CHP has avoided encryption entirely.