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Colorado House committee hears testimony on bill to limit police radio encryption

Posted: 2:56 PM, Apr 03, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-03 18:10:01-04

DENVER  – A bill concerning radio communications used by police, fire and other government agencies died in  Colorado House Transportation and Local Government committee before having a chance to go before the full House.

The bill called for all state, city and county entities, including special districts, to broadcast dispatch radio communications without encryption so the communications can be monitored by commercially available radio receivers and scanners or online.

Earlier this year, the Denver Police Department announced all communications would be encrypted starting this Spring. In response, the Denver Fire Department announced the same decision, citing potential difficulties in coordinating with police as they used different technologies.

Under the proposed bill, governmental entities could continue to encrypt all tactical or investigative radio communications as necessary to preserve the tactical integrity of operations, protect the safety of law enforcement or emergency responders, or prevent the destruction of property.

Another exception to the bill stated a governmental entity engaged in the investigation of criminal conduct can still encrypt its radio communications as well. The bill did not call for restrictions on encryptions of the department of corrections or the division of youth services.

HB19-1235 was introduced in the House March 12 and was assigned to the Transportation and Local Government committee.


So why should this matter to you?

News organizations rely on emergency personnel radio communications to be alerted about what is going on in the community. With all or many channels encrypted our ability to notify the public of events impacting their lives would be limited.

Law enforcement agencies have pushed back with concerns about criminals potentially using the communication frequencies to assist them in their criminal behavior. However, the ability for officers and agencies to switch to tactical channels – which are scrambled to all put the personnel with devices to decrypt – allows them to still work securely.

In many cases, law enforcement agencies will work with major media outlets to allow some access to channels. An agency could have a media organization sign an agreement on what channels will be available, and what they are allowed to report.  The argument against these kinds of agreements is the freedom of the press to information created by the government.

As a rule, KOAA News5 (and the majority of news organizations) do not broadcast or report information picked up scanners without verification.  We understand doing so could unnecessarily scare the public if we unknowingly send out information that could simply be a training exercise, or send out information on a sensitive operation that could place officers or others in danger if the information was released.

Federal agencies already have frequencies that are not legally available to the public or media. There are examples of states and certain jurisdictions choosing to encrypt all communications.  For example, no law enforcement or emergency personnel communications can be listened to in Louisiana.  In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, law enforcement agencies also encrypt their radios citing concerns about drug traffickers or human smugglers listening in.

What’s the cost associated with the contents of the bill?

According to an analysis by the Legislative Council Staff, the bill would require a General Fund appropriation of $400,000 to the Office of Information Technology for fiscal year 2019-2020.

The analysis also mentions that state revenues from civil filings would increase as more people challenge already encrypted systems across the state.  Those filings can result in costs to rectify any items ruled against in court, plus assumed damages requested by the filer.

But what will happen in the following year?

That’s now considered to be undetermined, as more data would be needed to create an estimate.

A revised analysis on April 1st removed a potential price tag of $8.3 million called for in a March 25th analysis. The earlier filing included, costs within the Office of Information Technology “to ensure unencrypted radio communications can occur across the Public Safety Network”, to include $6.3 million for installing additional transmitters at 241 radio towers and $2 million for reprogramming approximately 20,000 radios.

The most recent analysis states the need for a contractor to assess the potential costs if the bill passes.

READ: March 25th fiscal analysis

READ: April 1st fiscal analysis