Police Worry Criminals Use Smartphones To Monitor Radio Traffic


photo by Tripp/flickr

Police Worry Criminals Use Smartphones To Monitor Radio Traffic

While following up on leads of gang activity, an unnamed law enforcement agency ended up in foot chase with one of the suspects. As an officer closed in on the suspect, he could hear his department’s radio transmission, not from his own radio, but from the smartphone the suspect was carrying. The smartphone was tuned in to the transmissions in almost real time—only a three second delay, the officer said.

“Further investigation revealed that the general public, as well as criminal gang members and associates, are utilizing the website www.radioreference.com to listen to law enforcement secure channels streaming via the Internet,” says a December 9 bulletin issued by the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center.

Radio Reference was created in 1998 to be a central location for communications reference information for public safety, amateur radio, and hobbyists. It is the world’s largest radio communications data provider, according to its Web site, hosting more than 3,000 audio broadcasts from police, aircraft, EMS, and amateur radio broadcasts and making them available to its 500,000 members.

The fusion center bulletin said investigators have found at least 20 smartphone apps for monitoring police scanners. “This situation creates a concern for officer safety,” says the bulletin. Maryland authorities say criminals can also use the information to conceal criminal activity, set up ambushes, and plan getaways.

Lindsay Blanton, president and owner of RadioReference, who reviewed the bulletin Thursday afternoon, called it “a pretty shallow alert to the law enforcement community.”

“There are some pretty factually incorrect things in the bulletin. All of our audio feeds are on a 30-45 second delay,” he said. “There’s been one, maybe two, instances where the media reports that someone had a smartphone and was listening to communications while committing a crime. The interesting thing is that the person is caught every time.”

Blanton says RadioReference has strict rules that bar broadcasting law enforcement sensitive information and that the site has never been asked by an agency to stop broadcasting a feed.

“A good bit of those feeds are actually provided by some of those departments themselves. There are actually departments out there that want to have their communications online and available to the public,” Blanton said.

In Windsor, Virginia last September a suspect managed to stay a step ahead of police by using a portable police scanner during burglaries. For a period of timepolice relied on cell phones instead while investigating suspicious activity calls. District of Columbia Police believe drug dealers at a laundromat fled after an officer used his radio to call for backup, suggesting that they were listening in, the Associated Press reported.

Now police departments nationwide are working to encrypt radio transmissions, a move journalists and hobbyists say impedes the flow of public information.​