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)