Washington Post looks at the “Last of the scanners”

(Source: Washington Post)

Last of the scanners: Are police security measures and new technologies killing an American obsession?

In a white house on a quiet, leafy street in Takoma Park, Md., lives a man who listens to nothing but mayhem. He is remarkable not because of his appearance — tall, thin, black hair — but for what he has around him at all times: scanners.

On this day, the scanners of Alan Henney — whose tweets of bedlam are followed by dozens of Washington journalists — were going full blast. Eleven cluttered his coffee table and living room, all tuned to different radio frequencies from across the region. There was the chirp of D.C. Fire and EMS responders. The prattle of dispatch in Prince George’s County. And the broadcast of Montgomery County officials telling of a traffic accident, which, Henney concluded solemnly, “doesn’t sound very good.”

Something else that didn’t sound very good: the garbled noise coming from one scanner, obscuring D.C. police chatter. To Henney it sounded like death — not the death caused by crime or traffic accidents, but the demise of a passion.

Across the United States, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people like Henney who listen to official communications on radio signals, sifting through a morass of chatter for interesting news. Some pester crime reporters with tips. Others, such as Henney, showcase the hard-won news items — like gem hunters would a stone — on their social media feeds. But soon, Henney fears, all of that may end. And what will become of the scanner enthusiasts when there’s nothing left to scan?

Over the past few years, an increasing number of municipalities and police departments, including the District’s, have begun encrypting their radioed communications, a trend driven in part by fear that bad guys and terrorists need to do little more nowadays than download a police-scanning app to get all the intelligence they need on what police are doing and where. Just this year, police in Las Vegas, Richmond and Knoxville, Tenn., have encrypted their radio communication.

But what police are calling a public safety measure, scanner hobbyists are describing as a blow to transparency. Now they’re asking plaintive questions about whether it portends the end of a pastime once incubated in science clubs and Scout groups.[…]

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5 thoughts on “Washington Post looks at the “Last of the scanners”

  1. DL4NO

    The British security services went digital years ago. This was a great opprtunity for Hams to get commercial analog repeaters quite cheaply.

    Here in Germany the security services are in the process of converting to a nation-wide, digital TETRA net – one net for all! If a group is to help another unit, their communication equipment can be connected to the respective call group by the operation center. All this TETRA traffic is encrypted.

    There are groups that refuse the switch, for good reasons: The ols analog systems mostly used the 80 MHz and 150 Mhz bands, while the TETRA net uses the 400 MHz band – with all its operation range disadvantages.

    Especially fire brigades HATE all digital voice communication equipment: With analog equipment they realize in real time when the connection gets weak. Often you simply move 10 cm and you can hear clearly again. Digital systems react in a completely different way: You have perfect reception which is suddenly disrupted completely. If you move back 10 cm you must hope that this was enough as the conmmunication set needs a second or two to reconnect to the net.

    As a Ham I dislike all digital sets: You cannot chat as we have done for decades with minimal delays. You need to make sure that the next station knows that it (and no one else) is to talk next. Any switch over generates a 2 s delay. Luckily my DMR set was quite cheap and can also be used für normal FM traffic.

    Reply
  2. Troy Riedel

    I can relate … I’ve barely used my scanner in about a year. A couple of years ago I upgraded to a digital trunked scanner. However, more and more agencies in my area have gone to encrypted transmissions. That has taken the joy out of listening.

    Reply
    1. Tom Servo

      I can relate. When I got back into scanning (briefly) a few years ago, it was like a set of dominoes falling: first one agency would go encrypted, then others followed, and next thing ya know no one is in the clear anymore. Even the ones using more obscure digital modes like NXDN that few scanners can decode have gone encrypted.

      There’s still the air band, and most fire calls are in the clear on certain networks, but it’s just not worth the hassle anymore.

      It does make me wonder what exactly they have to hide… Sure, criminals can use those tools, but the vast vast majority of scanner users are hobbyists who keep what they hear to themselves.

      Reply
      1. Jason

        Criminals avoiding police check points (such as random breath testing stations for alcohol and drugs that occur in many places) or evading police during an active incident.

        Well meaning news reporters running into active crime scenes putting themselves in real danger.

        Bystanders (and even tourists) intruding on active crime scenes, contaminating evidence.

        All real and valid concerns, plus these days (as already mentioned in the post) it’s not about scanners anymore, it’s about smartphone apps which have suddenly made the live audio or paging/job system available to everyone without the need to spend any money on hardware or antennas or even be in physically close proximity to a repeater (or simplex transmission).

        Social media + smartphone apps = bad combination! (destined for disaster)

        Reply
  3. Jason

    I’m amazed that US police still use unencrypted radios, you’d think they would have moved over to digital encryption long ago.
    South Australia introduced encrypted police communications in December 2002 and was the first Australian state to do so. Since then most other states of Australia have followed, with regional QLD moving in May 2018, regional Victoria moving over in November 2018:
    https://www.thecourier.com.au/story/5769364/no-more-listening-to-the-police-scanner-as-radios-go-digital/
    Regional Tasmania are still rolling theirs out: (this is the latest news I could find from January 2018)
    https://www.theadvocate.com.au/story/5165207/state-liberals-called-on-to-address-police-scanner-issues-sooner/
    Although the technology they use was breached in 2017 (I believe Hobart city has had encrypted comms since 2016):
    https://www.themercury.com.au/news/scales-of-justice/bikies-breach-police-radio-listening-in-to-secure-network/news-story/c1df7cf8a309f07aa16ba7832c7c3d0c?nk=1537b2bde50cf03533fd71ecd4455138-1546388997

    Reply

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