The days of eavesdropping on the New York Police Department may be coming to an end.
The NYPD says it wants to reimagine its current police communication system and transition to encrypted messages by 2024 according to a recent amNY report confirmed by Gizmodo. While law enforcement has spent years fighting to make encryption less accessible for everyday people, police think they need a little more privacy. Critics worry a turn towards encryption by law enforcement could reduce transparency, hamstring the news media, and potentially jeopardize the safety of protestors looking to stay a step ahead.
According to amNY, the NYPD’s new plan would allow law enforcement officers discretion on whether or not to publicly disclose newsworthy incidents. That means the NYPD essentially would get to dictate the truth unchallenged in a number of potentially sensitive local stories. The report suggests police are floating the idea of letting members of the news media monitor certain radio transmissions through an NYPD-controlled mobile app. There’s a catch though. According to the report, the app would send radio information with a delay. Users may also have to pay a subscription fee to use the service, the paper said.
The NYPD confirmed its planning a “systems upgrade” in the coming years in an email to Gizmodo.
“The NYPD is undergoing a systems upgrade that is underway and that will be complete after 2024,” a spokesperson for the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information said. “This infrastructure upgrade allows the NYPD to transmit in either an encrypted or non-encrypted format,” the NYPD said. “Some parts of the city have had the necessary equipment installed and the Department will begin testing the technology in these areas later this year. We are currently evaluating encryption best practices and will communicate new policies and procedures as we roll out this upgraded technology.”
The spokesperson claimed the department intends to listen to and consider the needs of the news media during the transition process.
Civilian and media members monitoring police scanners are nothing new and date back decades. News outlets and independent journalists regularly rely on these public scanners to report on a wide swath of stories in real time from car crashes to officer-involved shootings. This type of scanner watching was the basic premise of the 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Nightcrawler, though usually with less sociopathic mischief. Press freedom advocates like the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press have long warned such a move would put reporters’ abilities to cover certain stories at risk.
“The entire public safety news coverage system depends on scanners, and if scanners and scanner traffic are no longer available to newsrooms then news reporting about crime, fire —it’s going to be very hit or miss,” CaliforniansAware General Counsel Terry Francke told the Reporters Committee in a blog post.
“Cutting off the media from getting emergency transmissions represents the clearest regression of the NYPD policy of transparency in its history,” New York Press Photographers Association President Bruce Cotler said in an interview with amNY. “We believe shutting down radio transmissions is a danger to the public and to the right of the public to know about important events.
Police departments’ wide adoption of encryption potentially has an even more significant impact on protestors attempting to organize. In 2020, thousands took to the streets around the United States in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s with many turning to police scanner apps to keep tabs on officers’ whereabouts and feed those details to on-the-ground protestors. Unsurprisingly, downloads for police scanning apps reportedly shot up drastically in May 2020 as concerns over mass arrests grew.
On the media question, several states have tried, with mixed results, to pass legislation over the years that would essentially create carve-outs for members of the press to gain some access to encrypted communications. Though most of those efforts failed, Colorado’s state legislator last year passed legislation that would require governmental entities using encrypted radio communications to adopt a policy that provides members of the press with access to unencrypted radio transmissions. Other cities, like San Francisco, have reportedly implemented a kind of hybrid system where some information passes over public channels while other info remains locked away by encryption.
New York joins a growing list of cities considering encrypting radio communications. Denver, Baltimore, Virginia Beach, Sioux City, Iowa, and Racine, Wisconsin have all moved to implement the technology in recent years. Tech companies and mobile carriers also seem more than willing to facilitate that switch. In 2020, AT&T began marketing a push to talk about encrypted IoT devices marketed toward first responders. Two years before that, Samsung optimistically suggested “replacing legacy police technology with smart devices.”