For a city famous for its long, drawn-out deliberations involving plenty of public input, this week's sudden announcement that the Palo Alto Police Department's radio transmissions would immediately be encrypted and no longer accessible to the public and media came as a shockingly secretive decision.
On Tuesday, the police department released to the media a four-paragraph notice stating: "Due to a requirement placed on all law enforcement agencies by the State of California Department of Justice to protect personal identifying information from being broadcasted on an open radio frequency, the city will be moving its law enforcement radio communications to encrypted frequencies to comply with these state standards.
"Here in Palo Alto, this change will go into effect this afternoon," the message stated.
The aim of the Department of Justice order, which itself seeks to comply with FBI security policy, is to ensure that information from state and federal databases, such as driver's license numbers and criminal histories, is not made public.
However, Palo Alto, like all other law enforcement agencies, faced two options for compliance: Either encrypt all transmissions or "establish policy to restrict dissemination of specific information that would provide for the protection of restricted CJI (Criminal Justice Information) database information and combinations of name and other data elements that meet the definition of PII (personally identifiable information). This will provide for the protection of CJI and Pll while allowing for radio traffic with the information necessary to provide public safety."
There was deafening silence surrounding the city's decision. At a minimum, the pros and cons of blanket encryption versus encryption only of private data should have gotten an airing in public. But the City Council never knew about, nor discussed this, in open session nor was it announced in city manager comments.
The inability for the public, and especially the news media, to access real-time information about police activities in the city's neighborhoods is a significant blow to both police transparency and public safety. Media reports on active police actions are an important source of information for the public and have long been seen as an essential part of responsible news gathering. Without it, the public will only receive information on police activity when and if the police themselves have the time and desire to release it.
And what will happen in mass emergency situations? The news media will be unable to get and disseminate vital information, leading to higher anxiety and even panic among the public. When a lockdown of Palo Alto High School occurred in 2018 after a false report that an armed person was on campus, record numbers of parents and students turned to Palo Alto Online seeking information.
Access to police dispatches is particularly essential given the lack of any reliable method of obtaining information quickly from the police these days. The department has no dedicated public information officer, and responses to requests for information take more than a day to receive at the earliest. Press releases announcing robberies and other crimes similarly take days to reach the public.
Following a year of unrest and protests urging police accountability, blanket encryption is the wrong move to make. It is incumbent upon the council to agendize a discussion of this decision to surface other options for protecting privacy while also preserving disclosure to the public, whom the police serve.
More effort should be made to identify technologies and processes to do so. Technological solutions for encrypting only certain parts of transactions should be doable in the innovative center of Silicon Valley. Even old school methods, including communication by phone between officers in the field and dispatchers with access to the private data, could be used.
Although continued and full public access to radio transmissions is optimal, legislation has been proposed in California and Colorado recommending that, at the very least, media be given access on the condition that the assurance that they will not reveal private information. Though that legislation has failed to pass, we think that this is worth renewed attention.
This sudden decision without community input and its simultaneous implementation is well below the standards of good governance, and the city should immediately reverse the decision pending a full and public discussion.