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March 21, 2005
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Scrambling Solutions for Police and First Responders

By Jenny Christensen, Emergency, Fire/Rescue & Police Product Review

Can you hear me now? Surely we have all had a chuckle from the popular advertising campaign that uses that phrase, and maybe even used it yourself in making a joke among friends.However, when it comes to your work in protecting and saving the public, there are times when you can’t have people hear your conversations. There are times during emergency and tactical situations when it is important, and perhaps essential, that your communications remain secure and confidential.

Securing communications from unwanted listeners

With simple technology that is now available from local retailers, the curious public, the story-seeking media and even your worst adversaries could be listening in on your two-way radio communications if you are not careful. For just a few hundred dollars, anyone can visit a local radio supply store or get on the Internet and buy a scanner.Using this simple piece of equipment, unwanted listeners can become as aware as your first responders of the status of a crime, crisis or emergency situation.

Although the majority of scanner users are purely listeners, sometimes they turn into “ambulance chasers” and interfere with emergency operations. And certainly, no one wants the media showing up to an accident or crime scene before emergency personnel arrive. By installing a scrambler or encryption module in your two-way radios and then using them in the coded mode, you can keep your communications confidential. That fact has never been more important than it is today, because now there is also the possibility of terrorist attacks, which unfortunately can occur anywhere and at any time. Some critical situations are more common than we like to think— from bomb threats at a county office or school to a family hostage situation. These are just a few examples of situations in which you want to assure that your communications are protected. Lives of the public and your personnel could be depending on it.

Conducting confidential operations

Say your local drug task force is preparing to make an arrest. The element of surprise is often a big part of a team’s success when it makes its move. If the media and its camera crews arrive before your team does, your operation could be doomed.Or perhaps you are closing in on an escaped prisoner or robbery suspect, and his accomplices have a scanner. They could easily listen in on your tactics and avoid being captured, heading east when they know you are heading west.High-speed chases are also occurring with greater frequency. With scramblers installed in your mobile radios, you can direct your squads to locations to preempt the chase without the risk of tipping off the driver, who could be listening.

For personal data, privacy is the law

Changing laws now require radio transmissions containing personal data to be protected.

When it comes to personal data, privacy is now becoming the law. It is critical that you keep an injured person’s or even a suspect’s/convict’s personal information confidential. Regulations regarding the protection of private information are becoming increasingly stringent. For example, when radioing a hospital, you may need to transmit data about a person that is considered private. The last thing you want is a lawsuit—or for law enforcement to have an important case thrown out of court—because a person’s personal data was accidentally revealed to someone listening in on your radio communications without authorization.

Getting started with scrambling

A scrambler or encryption module is a small device that installs inside a two-way analog radio. For digital technologies, the scrambler may be a software add-on for a P25 radio. Modules can be retrofitted to your existing analog radios or they can be installed in any new radios that you may add to your system.When your radio system is equipped with scrambling, listeners will hear garbled and generally unrecognizable speech.With the highest levels of encryption, they will hear only white noise.When used in the coded mode, your radio communications become private, available only to those who are supposed to be listening Scramblers are made for most popular brands and models of radios, including Motorola, Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu and many more. It is recommended that the scrambler manufacturer or your local radio dealer evaluate your radio system before installing a scrambler to ensure that the scrambler works optimally in your system. A brief training session with your personnel will also be needed to ensure they know how to operate the radio in clear and coded modes.

Not all scramblers are created equal

This is where scrambling can get tricky. Different methods of scrambling offer varying levels of security, from the most basic to the most secure: There is simple inversion scrambling; hopping code scrambling; a hybrid of sweeping and hopping code scrambling; and, most recently, digital encryption for analog radios. The level of security you need will be based on the level of sophistication of your unwanted listeners as well as on how sensitive and critical your data is and what your budget is.

Simple inversion has long been the most common type of scrambling. Some radios even come with simple inversion already installed by the manufacturer. However, using simple inversion scrambling in police and first responder applications is risky, because equipment to decrypt simple inversion communications is now easily accessible and available from a variety of retailers. Plus, a trained and careful ear can understand at least portions of a conversation that is protected by simple inversion.

A higher level of encryption is recommended for truly secure communications, with simple inversion being appropriate only for commercial applications such as taxis, limousines and private businesses. The “bad guys” are getting smarter and cleverer, challenging encryption manufacturers to build increasingly secure solutions. New digital encryption for analog radios offers the most superior security available today; however, digital ciphers can vary in security as well—they may have keys ranging between 32 bits and 128 bits, with longer keys typically signifying greater security. A manufacturer or a local dealer can help you determine the level and type of encryption that is right for your situation.

Jenny Christensen is the director marketing for Transcrypt International. For more information on the company, visit www.transcrypt.com or call (800) 228-0226.

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