Losing The Cops In A Foot Chase? There’s An App For That

Law enforcement officials in Maryland have issued a warning about the increasing use of smart phones and Web based services to listen in on law enforcement radio transmissions. Gang members, officials warn, are using the smart phone apps to get a jump on enforcement efforts and, in at least one case, to evade capture during a foot chase.

Law enforcement officials in Maryland have issued a warning about the increasing use of smart phones and Web based services to listen in on law enforcement radio transmissions. Gang members, officials warn, are using the smart phone apps to get a jump on enforcement efforts and, in at least one case, to evade capture during a foot chase.

The warning, from the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC) is titled “Criminal Use of Police Scanner Apps.” It describes several recent “contacts with criminal gang members” within Maryland during which “law enforcement agency (personnel) has heard their radio transmissions broadcast over a suspect’s smart phone.” In one instance, “officers pursuing a suspect on foot overheard the suspect listening to the pursuing officers’ radio transmission over a smart phone” with a three second delay.

As it turns out, the smartphone reveloution has hit gangland, too. Gang members and associates are using mobile applications such as the 5-0 Radio Police Scanner (iPhone and Android) and the radio enthusiast Web site radioreference.com to find and monitor secure channels used by law enforcement over the Internet. The ability to monitor supposedly secure police transmissions poses a risk to officer safety, the MCAC warning concludes: allowing gang members and other to hide their activity, set up an ambush for law enforcement or merely escape in a get-away situation. Law enforcement needs to have “heightened awareness” that criminals can exploit emerging technology to gain an upper hand in planning, execution and escape,” the MCAC warned. 

Lindsay Blanton, the founder and President of radioreference.com said his Web site is the audio content provider for every mobile police scanner application on the market.

“They all pull audio content from our site.”

But Blanton said reports of gang members using smart phone apps to monitor tactical police operations in real time are questionable. 

“The reality is that each feed we provide has a delay of 30 to 45 seconds. We don’t have feeds that have better performance.” That might not sound like much, but its an eternity in a foot pursuit or other tactical police operations, he said.

Radioreference.com is a 12 year-old site that just started live rebroadcasts of audio streams in the last three years. He said the site has between 15-20,000 users who tune in each evening, and around 10,000 to 15,000 during the day, Blanton told Threatpost.

Blanton said that his service relies on a volunteer army of more than 3,000 operators worldwide to capture and stream feeds, but prohibits the rebroadcast of public safety channels that are hosting tactical police or law enforcement operations. Listeners can find broadcasts in their geographic area and listen live, or to archived streams. He admits, however, that some operators don’t continuously monitor what they are rebro

adcasting and that his site can’t do much if law enforcement sends out tactical information over their normal dispatch channels.  Still, Radioreference has banned a handful of operators for rebroadcasting tactical information, occasionally at the request of local law enforcement, Blanton said.

The explosion of powerful smart phones and Internet streaming has put tools for monitoring police broadcasts into the hands of the masses. Recent reports from the AP highlighted mobile phone apps like Scanner 911, which police in the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions reporting incidents of busts going…well…bust after suspects fled the scene as police closed in, suggesting that they may have been privy to police radio chatter coordinating the raid. Efforts to shift federal, state and local first responders over to encrypted radio channels have been slow in coming, but communities around the U.S. are slowly making the switch to secure channel communications. Blanton said that radioreference supports the use of encrypted channels for tactical operations, but believes that dispatch and other non-tactical communications should be kept unencrypted and open to public monitoring.

In recent months, security experts have warned that even the secure communications protocols sued by man public safety and law enforcement agencies in the US, such as APCO P25, are vulnerable to attack. (PDF)

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  • Anonymous on

    not to be picky but there are a lot of speeing/grammatical errors in this post, Spellcheck next time? I only bring it up because I'm guessing you are a professional and get paid?

  • Paul Roberts on

    Thanks for the feedback - and I apologize. We always spell check and try to avoid stupid typos. In this case, I suspect that there was an error on save with our CMS and a those last minute edits and spelling correx got rolled back. They've been fixed. Thanks again. - Paul

  • T Mad on

    Technology and freedom are only good for society if not used to commit crimes!

  • Anonymous on

    Don't broadcast unencrypted over well known frequencies if you care about who might hear it. Because, duh.


  • Anonymous on

    When the cops stop behaving like criminals maybe the criminals will no longer play with the cops' toys.  Wouldn't that be nice?  This seems like a lot of hype on the part of the police to kick the public out of their conversations, which is what they've been attempting to do for years and years...

  • Anonymous on

    This article is quite confusing and seems a bit sensationalistic.    

    What exactly is meant by "secure communications" or "secure police transmissions"?   Initially, I assumed that these communications were encrypted or being propagated by an insider unlawfully, but a few paragraphs later it becomes clear that these are not encrypted channels at all. 

    Exactly who is claiming these transmissions are secure, or supposed to be secure?   The police wishing to have some privileged non-public communication medium in the absence of encrypted digital radios does not make it so.

    And of less concern, I don't see the novelty or how smartphones are offering any new special power to criminals to do bad.  Criminals are using smartphones to legally monitor unsecured police radio channels.  Kind of like criminals using scanner radios to legally monitor unsecured police radio channels, something that's been the case for decades.  That these transmissions are streamed over the Internet suggests that criminals are actually "exploiting new technology" to penalize themselves with a three to thirty second delay in receipt of police transmissions as compared with a scanner radio receiving transmissions concurrently with any geographically co-located police units attempting to apprehend said criminals.

  • Anonymous on

    They listen in on us, so i see no problem and listening on them.

  • Tinman on

      Much ado about nothing.  The police can already search through your phone without a warrant, so the next thing they'll be trying to outlaw any apps they don't like.  Pretty much business as usual in the police states.....

  • Houston Law re:Anonymous on

    I love reading posts from clueless clowns like "Anonymous", they think the police mistreat everyone, and things like this article talk about is how the little wanna be thugs level the playing field, but he is so far out his league that he should stay home so he doesn't end incarcerated somewhere. In house, if they use their phone in any manner for a criminal incident, we sieze the phone and it gets auctioned, and when we round up the like wanna-be gangbangers who were using their phones for look out during a crime, we sieze the phones and charge them all in Organized Crime. So people like "Anonymous", please continue to help us help curb your criminal behavior and your STUPID acts and ideas.

    Have a Blessed Day

  • Anonymous2 on

    Houston Law:

    Your pissy little fascist attitude is what gives law enforcement a bad reputation with the general public.  I think you have enough problems to deal with in Houston without wasting your time trolling the internet to get your jollies.


    Don't try to infer you are some kind of "holier than thou" christian by your "blessed day" tagline because you are giving true Christians a bad reputation, too.




  • Ted Riot on

    ...secure police transmissions...

    First of all, nothing transmitted by radio is secure. Even if it's encrypted. You heard me. Anyone can intercept it and spend the rest of their life decoding it...which makes encryption only effective in delaying the inevitable. Oh, and if it's not encrypted, it's in no goddamn way secure...but that doesn't stop the author from over dramatizing something that has been happening since radios were invented. Criminal use of police scanner apps? Come on, wake up. Maybe do one minute worth of research. Yes, scanners intercept radio comm...it's 100% legal. There's no difference now, except barrier to entry.

    Welcome to the age of Internet.
  • John M on

    A 3 second delay in a scanner feed is unheard of. Even if there was no intended delay, the systems typically can't process the traffic that fast. Radio Reference has long banned surveillance, undercover, federal law enforcement and similar traffic.

    My areas Public Safety communications center and several members of our local fire department utilize both Radio Reference and the smartphone apps as a monitoring tool for neighboring agencies and even repeat previous dispatches (using that 30+ second, not 3 second delay). Where's the report on Public safety use of these app's to save taxpayer dollars? 

    This kind of scare tactic is as old as monitors and scanners. Look at all the times a news report talks about how the captured bad guys used scanners to evade police (duh, they got caught.). Or they used scanners to "talk" to each other while committing the crime (haven't found a two-way scanner yet). Then they'll show the walkie-talkies the news calls scanners. Never mind how Hollywood has lied in various movies about scanners.

    While I may not agree totally with Ted Riot's approach, he's not far off. Some Law Enforcement agencies understand the value of the public awareness of their normal operations. But encrypting normal police ops (not the sensitive stuff) implies an agency looking to hide from its citizens. 

    I can personally thank a scanner (where the apps get their info from) for thwarting an attempt to steal my car one night. Yes, the scanner was directly involved. I can also say after 25+ years of monitoring, I can only think of a few cases where monitoring regular police ops, even with NO delay, would hold any advantage. The main one being avoiding speed traps by aircraft. Well if ya slowed down to avoid the "Bear in the air", didn't the police just achieve public safety. The best incident is the one that never happens.

    Gansta's will go around their respective areas going on about how they've got the drop on the local cops. Fact is, unless law enforcement drastically changes the way they communicate on two-way radios, giving GPS like locations every minute or two, the bad guys really don't have much with or without the apps.


  • Kyle on

    It's called Freedom of Speech and Press.    

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