Friday, March 06, 2009

The Right to Receive: Police Scanners and the Internet

Last night, I ran across this entry on a blog for the communities of Clayton and Concord in California.  In this entry, the publisher of the blog announced his intent to put up a live internet stream of his scanner, which is tuned to receive various police frequencies in the "ClayCord" (Clayton/Concord) area.  The comments on the thread are, to be certain, very interesting, as well as rather disturbing.

The idea of streaming scanners is pretty well established.  There's a whole organized system for picking up live ATC streams (LiveATC.net), which got some significant attention because the site was able to produce a recording of the communications related to the crash of Continental 3407 in Buffalo within hours of the crash.  There are also quite a large number of sites offering live and recorded police radio streams for much of the United States. 

And apparently the police aren't too happy about this.  Several states have laws that attempt to limit people's right to receive police radio, even though the Communications Act of 1934 granted a virtually unlimited right for any person to receive any signal they can hear.  Apparently the police don't want people listening to their radio signals, and rather than taking the obvious step of encrypting them to prevent people from usefully listening to them, they prefer to try to make it illegal, and when that fails, harass those who do listen to them anyway and make it easier for others to listen to them.

Some of this is evident in the linked thread: witness the several comments (probably all from the same person) declaring that the "FCC has regulations that prohibit streaming a police scanner" (they don't) and declaring other laws that make this sort of thing illegal, or which create criminal liability for the streamer should someone use their stream in the commission of a crime.  Why, one wonders, are the police so insistent that the public not listen into their conversations?

Then there's the recent issue with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, which recently got itself in hot water because citizens (reportedly, amateur radio operators) recorded IMPD officers using profane language to exchange vulgar and inappropriate comments, using frequencies the police do not have permission to use.  The use of unlicensed frequencies is especially concerning; the use of "unexpected" frequencies for such inappropriate commentary suggests that the officers in question knew that what they had to say was improper, but thought that, because it was being said on a "nonofficial" channel, would go unnoticed by supervisors and observers and thus not lead to repercussions.  Unfortunately for them, there are people who listen to everything, and someone took enough offense to report it to the FCC.

I've heard rumors that the FCC is withholding the identities of the people reporting the unauthorized transmissions because there is a real concern that the IMPD, or members thereof, will seek retribution against the reporters.  The fact that they were reported as "amateur radio operators" is especially interesting because of Indiana's mobile scanner law, which explicitly exempts amateur radio operators; by identifying the reporters as amateur radio operators that makes it impossible for IMPD to demand disclosure of identities so they can investigate whether Indiana's mobile scanning law was broken.  Those of us in Chicagoland know just how bad it can be when you cross a cop: just ask Mike Geinosky, who has received 24 parking tickets in 16 months, several of them for a car he no longer owns.  And that's mild for Chicago.

The clincher in that ClayCord thread was when the anonymous coward responded to my post explaining why the ECPA doesn't prohibit republishing police radio transmissions with posting somebody's address (not mine; I don't live in Concord) and encouraging people to go there and "protest" me.  Fortunately, someone (probably the blog owner) quickly deleted that comment.  Pretty blatant attempt at intimidation, there. 

So, while there's little question in my mind that while police scanners can be used for socially unredeeming purposes, the socially positive purpose of allowing the public to better keep tabs on how well the police (who are supposedly their servants) are performing their duties overwhelms that.