The past week has seen a torrent of information, the majority inaccurate, gushing from the faucets of Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and cable news and tabloids and blog posts. The story has become not so much what happened as what didn't happen; as BuzzFeed notes, the most valuable service a respectable publication can perform right now is not to be the first but to act as Virgil, guiding the public through the morass of information they already have.
In the midst of all this, one of the most difficult sources of information to parse has been one of the oldest: the police scanner. Until this morning, feeds from the Boston Police Department, broadcast over the web and through apps, were publicly available to anyone. Broadcastify, which calls itself "the radio communications industry's largest platform for streaming live audio for public safety, aircraft, rail, and marine related communications," had tens of thousands of listeners. Many of those listeners relayed the chatter they heard to Twitter or Reddit, if members of the public, or through news outlets, if members of the media.
Police scanners seem like reliable sources of information, a direct line to those who know more than anyone else about what's going on on the ground. News reporters and organizations are posting direct quotes from scanners without any equivocation. You could almost see them thinking, "this stuff originates from the police themselves! It must be real!" Some of these channels, which are essentially just like any AM/FM station, are available to the public, or at least any member of the public with a computer (or, in the past, a $100 scanner). Those are mostly calls from dispatch, according to a detective from the Radnor, Pennsylvania police department who chatted with me about how scanners work. "You can hear police calls, fire calls, EMS calls, public works calls," he said. (Radnor is the hometown of Sunil Tripathi, a Brown student who became a prime suspect in the minds of the public for a few hours last night.) Lindsay Blanton, CEO of the company that owns Broadcastify, confirmed that, saying "Our feed provider terms of service restrict the broadcast of any law enforcement communications that are not routine dispatch frequencies and talkgroups."
The police doesn't much care that these are available to the public. They're not provided as a service to the public or out of any kind of desire to transparency; many police forces just don't bother encrypting these radio feeds because they're not seen as sensitive. This isn't the only way they communicate; on-duty officers have secure, encrypted lines as well, the detective from Radnor tells me. It's important to note that there's no law requiring police dispatch lines to be public; in fact, many departments, like the Pasadena Police Department, have decided to encrypt all of their frequencies. Pasadena cites concern for victims, whose names and locations are often broadcast over the channel, as the reason for the change.
What you hear on the scanner is what the dispatcher or communications center hears: a call that something is happening that requires investigation, and conversation that comes from addressing that call. That doesn't make it true, of course, nor does the dispatcher or any police officer make any claim to that effect. When somebody calls the police station and says they see a suspicious person lurking in an alley, what the public hears through the scanner is "possible suspicious person lurking in an alley." If it turns out to be a chair with a coat on it, that's no big deal for the police; they investigated and resolved the call. But if a member of the media hears that, and the call happens to take place in a city in which a recent bombing has killed three and injured hundreds, that chair with a coat can turn into a terrorist with one tweet.
Early this morning, the Boston Police Department tweeted this:
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
In response, Broadcastify shut down its scanner feeds, saying "MA State PD and Boston Police have requested via social media to not post search locations for the Boston bombing suspects - the Boston PD feed is temporarily offline due to this request." This is an indirect request, and a respectful response from Broadcastify; the scanner feed isn't "offline," it's merely harder to find, to try to tamp down the flow of misinformation. Lindsay Blanton, from Broadcastify, told me via email that "we did not receive any formal request - we're just making the temporary decision for now in light of the extraordinary events."
An academic paper from a doctoral student at the Indiana University School of Journalism examines the legality and ethics of tweeting information from police scanners more closely. Here's the conclusion, with the important part emphasized by me:
Broadcastify is a perfect example of why the most important element of the debate is the need for specific rules. Though Broadcastify did eventually cut off the flow of scanner information to Twitterers, it was only done after several innocents had already suffered the consequences of false accusation.
It generally doesn't hurt that scanners are public. The law states that any criminal in possession of a scanner during the commission of a crime has an increased punishment, to stop them from using dispatch information to make their illegal activities easier, and the most sensitive information isn't exchanged via these channels. But scanners are assumed to be at best a vital part of law enforcement transparency, and at worst harmless, or even funny. They're for people like these guys to get their "personal safety, neighborhood crime awareness, emergency preparedness, and excitement!" It's only now, with the unholy combination of a massive crime story and a relentless need for new information, that police scan dispatches are elevated to the status of unimpeachable, insider fact.
So now we're reduced to the Boston Police Department having to issue a tweet with the hashtag #MediaAlert to tell us what a police scanner is and when to shut up about it. There's no law that says Broadcastify had to stop broadcasting the feed that led to an innocent kid from Pennsylvania, among many others, becoming national terrorist suspects. We need some sort of guidance to respond to the increased desire and outlets for information.
Making these rules won't be easy; this is a battle between transparency and oversaturation that will decide how much we are allowed to know and how much we should know. An absolute decision in either direction leads to chaos; people won't stand for having a direct line to law enforcement totally shut down, but we've proved over the past week that we are in no way responsible enough to handle an unfettered flow of information. It's delicate, and there are no easy answers, but something is going to need to change.
Sounds simple enough, we pay for the police therefore we should be able to listen in on the devices we purchased for them. They serve us.
If broadcasting officer locations compromises the investigation, like today, they should be able to switch to a private channel. At least private in the sense that any user with internet access cant get info from the scanner. Not private in the sense of "We don't have to be held accountable for what we say on this channel"
We don't need any "rules". The scanners aren't the problem. The journalists are. They mindlessly regurgitate sensational tidbits without bothering to verify, further contributing to the decline in quality of news journalism. Another reason Americans increasingly distrust mainstream media.
I've been using scanners for 40 years for everything from listening to Russian satellites to eaves dropping where I shouldn't be.
With today's technology and use of band and channel hoping by law enforcement officials makes the question a moot one.
Many have already made the move to the "Erica" system and are completely scrambled to the average user.
If a PD is so large they need to scramble their signals, then they are large enough to afford the move to the newer system.
It should never be illegal to intercept a signal flowing through the air.
You break laws when you start deciphering the signals.
Work on that end if you want to make a difference.
This just goes to show we don't need the government to trample the rights of the people. The people will hand them over freely. Dan you advocate passing a law to stop the use of scanners, what happens when it is people sitting in their houses using Twitter - Tweeting locations. Do you then advocate knocking down their doors and stopping them?
We always talk about transparency in government and how "our government" could never stop the free flow of information such as Egypt and other countries have. Yet ridiculous ideas like this crop up.
So now you are advocating creating new laws in the wake of a terrorist attack. In the end we lose more rights over a false sense of security. As if the Patriot Act didn't go far enough.
Some people may think that getting secured lines of radio communication is easy these days with all the advances in technology but its not as easy as you think. Besides the cost of the equipment and the personnel that would be needed to run, monitor and service secured nets for tens of thousands of LE departments there is a very real problem of loosing secured radios, leaking the encryption keys, leaking the fills etc. In the military your career turns into a flaming pile of dog crap if you ever lose a sensitive item such as a radio, a fill or encryption keys. Its a very legitimate national security concern. These are all controlled devices. We still have guys that lose this stuff on the battlefield. Now blow this up to a much larger scale to LE agencies and PD's all over the country. Bad idea. They can stick to what they have. The ones that need secured nets like SWAT, SRT, HRT, DEA etc all ready have them. The normal cop patrolling a neighbor hood does not.
@ spoiler ; I'm all over the airwaves too, and definitely believe that police should be using hard encryption sometimes. And they all will be using it all the time soon, it being a natural progression. Their communications are infrastructure, so as far as I can tell, secure comm has already been paid for, nationwide. If they are saying it hasn't already been paid for-since 2002-then they probably misappropriated the federal funds that went to every locality in this nation that was supposed to cover this specific issue, among others.
your right, basically if the waves are coming into my house its my airspace
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Scanner communications did not identify ANYONE.
The original question contains a falsehood when it says: "Several innocent people have been accused of being responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing thanks to misinformation originating from police scanners."
The fact is that NO individuals were ever named or accused from scanner traffic. Not one.
Scanner transmissions did not contain the names of any individuals. Nor did they contain "misinformation".
Instead, the infamous Twitter accusations were based on the flood of PHOTOGRAPHS of the event. Some amateurs with good intentions came to the wrong conclusions.
So should we ban photography? Of course not.
Despite the Twitterers, it was those very photos that quickly zeroed in on the bombers and ended further mayhem.
Bottom line: Scanners had nothing to do with accusing anyone. But they did give the public and the press an unfiltered view of the police doing their finest work.
I have been listening to scanners for nearly 40 years and there have always been some basic ground rules, and then there is the law. Scanner etiquette states that scanners are for an individual to listen to the radio traffic either as a hobby, part of a public safety affiliation, or something in-between.
I can tell you as a member of public safety and as a former 9-1-1 dispatcher since the 1970's that I used scanners as a means to monitor EMS, Fire, Police, Sheriff, and Highway Patrol units during pursuits or special events to monitor, confirm, and verify what public safety officials were doing. NO speculation, just the facts.
We don't all have two-way radios to communicate with the agencies in a region, and scanners have a place to assist with communication. One can still monitor some police and fire agencies with a standard radio that picks up VHF and UHF frequencies from Radio Shack, these are not scanners.
The scanner and etiquette rule states that - what you hear on the scanner, stays with the individual(s) listening to it. This kind of activity used to be confined to a bedroom, living room, or household. Not any more, now it is broadcast all over the world. I can listen to the LAPD in New York, and NYPD in Los Angeles.
Scanner traffic, no matter where it originates, is not be re-broadcast via other channels like Twitter, Facebook or other Internet sources. 20 years ago, the PRESS used to point their field and helicopter cameras into emergency scenes and give away law enforcement positions. After several situations where officer safety was compromised directly by the MEDIA and PRESS, the PRESS agreed not point their cameras at SWAT Teams as to not give away their locations and tactical advantage, and that rule still applies today.
Tweeting the positions of law enforcement and other officials violates scanner etiquette, and the rules of basic public safety, which is to do no harm. It's rarely the public, it is usually the PRESS or MEDIA violating etiquette and showing a complete lack of common sense.
Nowadays, scanner traffic, and even the Computer Aided Dispatch Information is posted to the Internet (California Highway Patrol, Santa Barbara County, etc) all post information on the Internet. The problem is we have a generation of idiots, both private and professional, who refuse to acknowledge and play by common sense rules and respect the basic etiquette that has been in place for decades. What we are seeing is the media's attempt to "scoop" a story and throw out common sense. Don't blame the scanner feed, blame the minority of idiots who reject common sense and scanner etiquette. Therein lies the problem.
And please don't forget, the same people listening to scanners are directly responsible for many, many arrests. They heard something, saw something, and acted on it, all of the result of monitoring the scanner and being a good citizen.
Bottom line: Scanners have nothing to do with false accusations spread on social media. But they did give the public and the press an unfiltered view of public safety officials doing their finest work.
There are all ready other frequencies that are not available to the civilian audience (even illegal to have a capable device or modification)that are used by law enforcement and other agencies. They have them for this purpose. Many police just use their cells for sensitive communications.
I thought that it would just be common sense for someone to not broadcast the other suspect that were being apprehended for other reasons (eg failure to comply / drunk drivers) I too was listening in out of curiosity, and heard several arrests happen that were obviously NOT the bomber.
I think it should just be spread around to use common sense, not have public access frequencies made illegal because of our stupidity and ego to be "first" to announce something.
Perhaps it needs to be pointed out that police scanners are not the only devices that can listen into public service communications (police, fire, ems, rescue, air traffic,etc.), just convenient purpose built devices.
Most of these communications are in public portions of the VHF/UHF frequency band - most amateur radio communications equipment can receive large portions of the frequencies used by public services. In fact, the FCC has specifically ruled that it is legal for any amateur radio operator (which is a super low bar - can get that license with $10 and a shoddy understanding of P=IV) to posses a radio that is capable of receiving on frequencies outside the legal transmission bands of amateur radio - including public service frequencies. See FCC 93-410.
This decision also preempts any local or state laws, so even if state laws outlaw scanners you can posses the capability as an amateur operator.
You would have to outlaw amateur radios in order to prevent people from listening to these transmissions.
A number of my friends had their radios tuned in to listen to the search in Boston. The police frequencies are all published, and the active ones during the investigation were unencrypted in the 400 MHz range. You didn't need a scanner to listen in.
Stop the presses! Nosowitz is all for more laws! Never could have guessed that one.
Hedy Lamarr invented frequency hopping in '41. The technology is both old and fairly ubiquitous. There is little technical reason that police cannot get reasonable encryption through this technology.
The roads are public, but people expect a degree of privacy inside cars. Likewise, the airwaves are public but if a police agency wants to encrypt, fine. As for loosing fills, etc., police forces do not require the level of opsec that the military does, on one hand, and on the other, police already have to keep up with other sensitive items (weapons). All this said, it is sloppy thinking to draw a conclusion of "lets ban this or that," when we perceive a problem with it. A proper ban is difficult: it requires searches and seizures, a looser understanding of due process, and a great amount of compliance from the general population. For this reason, they are not typically good for a free republic. They are good, in the short term, for politicians who want to appear to be addressing a problem.
Mr. Nostowitz, what public office are you running for? I ask because your track record has shown little interest in scientific thought, but more in political thought.