NYPD Moves Towards Encrypting Radio Transmissions After Years Of Decrying Encryption Use By The General Public
from the our-security-trumps-your-security dept
New York City residents will, once again, be asked to foot the bill for NYPD efforts that solely benefit the nation’s largest police department. It’s not enough that they’ve been asked to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to bail out officers hit with civil rights lawsuits. It’s not enough that they’ve been asked to foot the bill for the NYPD’s repeated refusal to comply with public records laws.
Now, they’re being asked to pay for even more opacity, this time taking the form of full encryption of police/dispatch radio transmissions.
The NYPD is set to fully encrypt its radio broadcasts by the end of next year as part of a nearly $400 million planned system upgrade — setting off alarm among local politicians and press advocates.
The NYPD’s massive network of radio communications is expected to go dark by the end of 2024 as the department switches from an analog to a digital network, according to Chief of Information Technology Robert Beltran.
This will effectively cut one form of public oversight out of the loop. Journalists and others keeping an eye on police activity will no longer be able to perform this public service. Instead, the NYPD will spend $400 million in public funds to ensure only cops know what cops are up to.
A decade ago, the NYPD was actually encouraging people to keep their smartphones updated to ensure they could avail themselves of device and communication encryption offerings. Not long after that, the tune changed, led by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance.
Bill Bratton, following the lead of then-FBI Director James Comey, said device encryption “did a terrible disservice to the public” by making it more difficult for police to obtain data and communications from seized phones. Bratton also claimed the move towards default device encryption (as well as end-to-end encryption for communications) was nothing more than mercenary behavior by device manufacturers that served nothing more than their bottom line.
Cyrus Vance engaged in his own brand of encryption demonization, claiming (without supporting facts) the NYPD was sitting on dozens of uncrackable devices, insinuating that all the phones he tossed on the press conference table were loaded with evidence crucial to ongoing investigations and prosecutions. “Warrant-proof” was the term deployed by DA Vance, a term frequently deployed by consecutive FBI directors as they complained about the public being allowed to secure their devices and communications.
But encryption is apparently ok if it’s the PD using it. That’s the takeaway from this planned deployment, which NYPD officials claim is crucial to ensuring officer safety. That it helps prevent the public from keeping an eye on cops is just an added bonus — one that is deliberately ignored when police officials discuss the encryption rollout. According to the NYPD, the fact that the NYPD communicates anything at all through social media accounts and press releases is far more than the public deserves.
Beltran said the switch was necessary to protect cops and the personal details of crime victims, arguing during the hearing that the police department can be trusted to get important information out to the public in a timely manner.
“The department provides information to reporters many times a day every day. We also have hundreds of digital media officers assigned to precincts that are also updating information on social media in real time,” he said.
Yes, the city’s journalists and citizens should be thrilled to be blessed by fully vetted PR releases, rather than being allowed to draw their own conclusions from radio transmissions and activity witnessed at crime scenes — ones they’re able to locate thanks to previously unencrypted transmissions.
Somewhat ironically, one of the most notable victims of this shift to encryption is the controversial crime-reporting app, Citizen. This app — and its developers — have courted controversy in the past by encouraging users to act as ambulance chasers and rush to crime scenes to provide other users with footage and speculation. The company that courted voyeurs and vigilantes is now a bit nonplussed that this shift to encryption will render its product mostly useless.
“We have spent six years building up this network and saving a tremendous amount of lives and this threatens all of this progress,” said Andrew Frame, CEO of Citizen, adding that many New Yorkers rely on the app to stay safe.
I can believe the “six years building up this network.” The claim that Citizen has “saved” lots of lives is completely ridiculous. The app was never about improving public safety. It was always about filling crime scenes with rubberneckers and encouraging people’s worst impulses.
That’s not to say the NYPD has completely cut the public out of the loop. It claims it might let a few chosen partners (journalists, Citizen) engage in virtual ride-alongs via limited feed access, but it won’t make that decision until long after the heat has died down.
The NYPD hasn’t ruled out allowing the press or companies like Citizen to tune in, said Beltran, while noting that such a plan — which could include granting delayed access to the feeds — is under a departmental review that won’t be completed until after the entire network is encrypted.
In other words, the NYPD will go dark first. Then it will engage in the much longer process of determining who’s allowed to listen in — a process that I imagine will involve months or years of discussion, followed by months or years of inaction NYPD officials will claim is actually “implementation.”
The NYPD is “going dark,” something it claims is necessary to keep it safe and secure. But it’s not willing to extend the same courtesy to the people it serves. And it certainly won’t be bothered by the extra layer of opacity it provides. The taxpayers lose. Again. And they’re expected to pay for this privilege.