News

Editorial: Poor decision to encrypt police radio transmissions should be reconsidered

In a Jan. 5 statement, Palo Alto police announced plans to encrypt police radio communications to protect personal identifying information as required by the state Department of Justice. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

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."

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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.

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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.

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Editorial: Poor decision to encrypt police radio transmissions should be reconsidered

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 8, 2021, 6:59 am

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.

Comments

Suspend It
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2021 at 1:18 am
Suspend It, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 1:18 am

The City Council must immediately direct the City Manager to tell Chief Jonsen to suspend all encryption use under this new directive. This is no small matter. Police cannot be allowed to dictate to city government. This issue must then be fully scrutinized by the council with public input.

That Chief Jonsen thought he had unilateral power to simply remove information from the public domain without notice to the City Manager, City Attorney or Mayor is disturbing. It's a familiar pattern as he also managed to get internal police complaints removed public purview, to the secrecy of the HR Dept, and he needlessly redacts large chunks of police policies from the Manual. In transparency lies the truth, but there's much we are not allowed to know.

Here there is a less odious alternative than total encryption but the Chief chose not to take it - part of his pattern. Now the Council must for the safety of our community and for the freedom of our press.


Resident
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 8, 2021 at 8:58 am
Resident, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 8:58 am

I have a different and disturbing take, having recently listened to many hours of PAPD dispatch over weeks.

I'm a resident with experience listening to VHF radio comms in other contexts. Here, I listened over the internet after a wild crime incident near my home piqued my interest.

This is my take: encryption masks Palo Alto's thin protection. I was very surprised how few patrol officers are out there on a shift. My opinion of the number of patrol officers communicating with the dispatcher during a shift is so small that I hesitate to share my opinion in this open forum.

I'd go so far as to say I'm mildly shocked, and feel betrayed by the PA City Council for their vote to reduce police by 20% under present circumstances: within a few blocks of my home, i) a neighbor in his 80s was stabbed in/about the neck while walking his dog, and nearly died of his wounds; ii) a fleeing thief jettisoned a semi-auto pistol in the gutter; iii) a house was assaulted multiple times on Christmas Day, culminating in break-in; and iv) there have been numerous vehicle burglaries/thefts and vandalism/thefts of catalytic converters.

I invite new Council and new Mayor to determine how many police are on patrol during a shift, especially the overnight shift. With this information, Council should reconsider its 20% reduction.


John
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 8, 2021 at 9:38 am
John, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 9:38 am

@suspend it- "Police cannot be allowed to dictate to city government" Police also can't tell our state's DOJ to shove their order until the council decides if they maybe want to follow it.

@Resident- a minimum of 6 patrol officers during the day, 5 overnight, but they sometimes don't have enough to meet minimums (shhhh!). They are also currently not training or hiring new cops. With a two year ramp up to get new cops on the street, the city is looking at some serious issues in the near future especially since other agencies cops rarely want to lateral here.


Alice Schaffer Smith
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jan 8, 2021 at 10:40 am
Alice Schaffer Smith, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 10:40 am

What is happening to Palo Alto. We seem no longer to be open, inviting and working with the police and staff for the best of the city. I was shocked to read about the secreting of police radio. As I was horrified by the beatings of people by our police. Who is in charge and should he be? I can only assume it is a he who is making these decisions.


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Jan 8, 2021 at 1:53 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 1:53 pm

The most important reason for closing the airways to all except for law enforcement personnel is because BAD GUYS LISTEN to police dispatches, too! Do you understand what that means? Think about it, folks. My thanks to the PAPD for closing police dispatches to all except for law enforcement personnel.


Jennifer
Registered user
another community
on Jan 8, 2021 at 2:30 pm
Jennifer, another community
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 2:30 pm

With the exception of journalists listening in for professional reasons, police dispatch should never be available to the general public. And, yes -- it's because "bad guys are listening." It's to the detriment of all of us if criminals are listening in. Keep the airwaves closed -- everywhere. The last thing we need is more advantages for the criminal.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:05 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:05 pm

Blog from Police Chief:

"Recently, the Palo Alto Police Department encrypted its radio transmissions to comply with a mandate from the California Department of Justice that requires all California law enforcement agencies to protect personal identifying information. Given recent public and media discussions on this topic, I would like to take a moment to discuss this state requirement and how it does not change the Police Department’s commitment to transparency and sharing of public information.
The Palo Alto Police Department is not the first law enforcement agency in Santa Clara County to comply with this state mandate, which local media reports have led the public to believe. In fact, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, the San Jose Police Department, the Morgan Hill Police Department, and the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety have moved their radio communications to encrypted channels. The remaining law enforcement agencies in the County are continuing to use open and unencrypted channels in the short term and are all planning to migrate to encrypted channels by the end of the calendar year at the latest. At that time, every law enforcement agency in Santa Clara County will be using encryption."

Web Link


AnotherPalyParent
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:03 am
AnotherPalyParent, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:03 am

Last year, my child had a mental health incident involving a police response. The child is a minor The version of events the police reacted to was not in fact what had happened. Understandably I don't want my child's name, address or erroneous and dramatic information broadcast over the police radio for anyone to hear! So I welcome full encryption. However, in return, PAPD should increase their transparency with media and public. Some years ago they had a full-time person doing exactly that function, they should spend the $ to get that position reinstated.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:50 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:50 am

There is a thread on NextDoor with a lot of upset comments about the recent surge in robberies and how the police are declining toeven write them up and/or take reports.

Perhaps this is related to the encryption?

I always skim the police blotters with interest, especially after friends have reported the number of overnight car break-ins on their streets and am usually quite surprised to see how the numbers reported are MUCH lower than what friends have said.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:51 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 11, 2021 at 11:51 am

PS: One person on NextDoor said they were told by the PA police that nothing would change about the reporting unless 4 City Council members requested that change.


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