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Trend toward local police radio encryption grows, as does resistance

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  1. Policy
California now requires police departments to encrypt police radios entirely or adopt a hybrid system.

Update: On June 21, 2021, Colorado’s state legislature passed a bill requiring police agencies that fully encrypt radio communications to enact media access policies in consultation with the media.

Last fall, this newsletter covered the growing trend of encrypting local police radio communications. The trend has continued. Since October of last year, at least 10 cities and localities have adopted police radio encryption, including Palo AltoSanta ClaraSimi ValleyCalifornia City and San Jose, in California; Decatur and Macon County, in Illinois; Scott County, in Minnesota; Prince William County, in Virginia; and Fargo and Cass County, in North Dakota.

Resistance to this trend has also grown. Representatives in the Colorado state house plan to re-introduce a bill that includes language pushing back against police radio encryption. (In Colorado, both Denver and Aurora encrypt police radio transmissions.) And efforts surrounding this issue in California have been particularly notable, especially considering a state-level directive, issued in October 2020, requiring police departments to encrypt police radios entirely or adopt a hybrid system.

San Francisco appears to be the first locality to select the hybrid system. In its new system, scheduled to go online July 1, the city will communicate some information over public radio channels and some over encrypted channels. Dispatcher requests for officers to respond to an incident and the outcome of the incident will remain public. Communications regarding the incident and checks on personal information, such as driver’s licenses or criminal history, will occur on the encrypted channel. This option balances public and media access with privacy and security concerns but can be expensive for smaller localities, since it potentially requires multiple types of equipment, and certainly requires more complex training and protocols.

Palo Alto, one of the earliest cities to respond to the statewide directive, has also faced public scrutiny. The Daily Post, a local newspaper, submitted a public records request to the California Department of Justice on March 30 of this year, after its requests for interviews with relevant officials went unanswered. The Post requested documents discussing the kinds of information exchanged between local police departments and the relevant state agency that posed privacy and security concerns, as well as information about the kind of implementation plans that would be acceptable to the state. The Post has not yet received a response, in possible violation of the state’s open records law.

In April, the Palo Alto Police Department signaled its desire to reverse the policy, by formally asking the state if the department could revert to its previous, unencrypted process while figuring out an alternative to blanket encryption. Perhaps more cities will similarly choose to explore hybrid models that better balance public and media access with privacy and security concerns.

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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow Mailyn Fidler.

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