Following the Dorner saga in California and the Boston Bombings, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding online scanners. As someone who has feet on both sides of the fence on this issue, I think I’m well positioned to offer an opinion on it. My opinion centers around two words: responsibility and encryption. At the end of the day, the user of an RF scanner and the user of an online scanner must be responsible. The user of an RF scanner is self responsible but it’s hard to take into account the responsibility of what could be thousands of listeners of an online scanner. It then follows that some amount of responsibility falls on the owner/operator of the online scanner. The lack of responsibility, real or perceived will lead to the increased use of encryption by the public safety agencies that so many listeners wish monitor.
I believe that with a few exceptions, regular day to day government communications should be unencrypted and in the clear. It offers the public a very simple form of public oversight much the same as sunshine laws allow. What the public listening in has to remember is that often initial reports over the radio don’t always reflect exactly what has happened or exactly what is going on. Sometimes the full situation doesn’t become clear until later on or afterwards. More often than not, if you can’t say something over the radio, it probably doesn’t need to be said in the first place. That said there are certain things that should be encrypted in the interest of officer safety and privacy. Tactical channels used by special units such as SWAT teams and channels used for undercover investigations should be encrypted for officer safety. Channels used to transmit personal information such as criminal history, driver’s license, vehicle plate information, or medical history should be encrypted to protect individual privacy. As it was quickly learned during the aftermath of the Boston Bombings you can’t assume that every name mentioned over the radio is going to be a suspect, very often persons or vehicles will be run without the context in which they’re being run in.
Let’s go back to the day to day unencrypted communications, though. This is where responsibility comes into play. Someone listening to their personal scanner or an online scanner must be responsible with what they hear. That personal scanner only allows one or a small number of people to listen but the online scanner allows an untold number of people to listen in. You can’t, however, account for the responsibility of all of those people so the responsibility of the owner/operator of the online scanner comes into play. The operator of the online scanner must be careful about what they program into the scanner being broadcast over the internet and the feed should be attended as often as possible. As much as possible, the radio feeding the online scanner should be attended, so that if something that could impact safety or an investigation begins happening, it can be kept from going out across the feed.
What do I mean by being responsible? I don’t run an online feed (and I won’t as long as I have my current job), but I do report on some of what I hear on the radios via email groups, Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. If I were to run a feed, I would use the same “filters” when choosing what to feed as I do when choosing what to post about. Contrary to popular belief from some detractors, I don’t post everything I hear. There are certain things that I won’t post on as events happen and some that I won’t post on at all. Far from it. As far as public safety goes, I won’t post about investigative communications, tactical law enforcement operations, or names/personal information given out over the radio. Most of the criticism I get is on the military communications front but I’m equally selective on what I post about from military monitoring. I rarely post about combat deployments; if I do it is ALWAYS after the deployment has been reported about in the media. I’m selective about posting REACH flights due to not knowing whether they might be related to. I don’t post publicly about active Combat Air Patrol or security patrols on rivers and waterways; to me they fall into the same category as a tactical law enforcement operation would.
At the end of the day, I believe that online scanners and especially the irresponsible use of online scanners as witnessed particularly during the Boston Bombings is going to lead to the increased use of encrypted communications. There are those that think they are performing a service to the public that are going to cause agencies and radio systems to go encrypted. There are things that are best to wait for a Public Information Officer to confirm rather than simply go with what one hears on a scanner because as mentioned, initial radio reports may not fully shed light on what has happened and you don’t always know the context in which someone’s name has been mentioned or checked. The community as a whole are going to lose a simple form of public oversight because of those that are biting the hand that feeds them.