What to do with my scanner when the cops go to encryption?

Encryption is a four-letter word among scanner enthusiasts. Encryption is the act of scrambling a signal to make it unmonitorable to radios not equipped with the proper technology and (most importantly) the proper key. The encryption keys are code numbers that are set up to assure that only permitted radios may hear and participate in a communication.

There is no way to decrypt a modern encrypted communication with a scanner, even with any of the various updates. Contrary to the occasional belief, the “Extreme Update” etc. does not open encryption. Neither will any firmware updates.

The only way possible to hear an encrypted communication is with a properly programmed System Radio programmed with the encryption keys. Occasionally police departments with encrypted systems will provide a system radio with basic talkgroups to media, wreckers, neighboring agencies and others that might have a legitimate need to monitor them. Unfortunately this privilege does not extend to scanner users.

So now what do you do if your agency goes to encryption? Often the police will be the only ones to go encryption so you may still be able to listen to other agencies like Fire/EMS, Street and Utility departments and mutual aid channels, often on the same radio system as the encrypted agency. Often the old channels are still in use for other purposes, as backup, tactical, or car-to car use. Some agencies only have encryption on certain channels, for example Tac or Swat, while leaving Dispatch in the clear.

Your scanner may still be used for many other services that rarely use encryption and you may discover all new listening experiences. For example, railroads, aircraft and business operations may still be monitored. Try listening to these services for a while and you might get interested in them. They can be fascinating, even more so than police traffic.

There is also the (slight) possibility that the agency could remove or reduce the use of encryption. In these days of mistrust of the police, however unjustified, encryption can be seen as a block to transparency. Some agencies have since removed encryption from routine dispatch channels for this reason.

PS: Modern encryption is most common these days on P25 digital systems but can also be used on other digital systems. Older analog systems occasionally used rudimentary scrambling that could be cracked with decoder kits or even monitored by some people that could make it out audibly. Those systems are pretty much all gone these days and rarely encountered due to the ease of being overcome.

Just because the police are gone from your scanner doesn’t mean the scanner is totally useless.

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About Rich Carlson

June 12, 2015 - Scanner Master is extremely proud to announce that Rich Carlson, past-president of the Chicago Area Radio Monitors Association (CARMA) and one of the nation's leading scanner experts, is now part of our team. Rich recently retired as a Sergeant for the Winnetka, Illinois, Police Department and is now assisting Scanner Master customers in choosing the right scanner for their area, answering technical questions and helping us to develop new products and services. Rich is a highly respected member of the monitoring community who has decades of experience with all types of scanners and communications receivers, antennas, software and accessories. He has a great knowledge of the radio systems that we all monitor as he himself helped to institute and manage many in his time. We couldn't be more excited to have Rich on board. Rich Carlson, N9JIG, has been a railfan since the late 1970's and a radio listener since the 1960's. He has written several scanner guides, including the Scanner Master Illinois Communications Guides. He was a Director of the Chicago Area Radio Monitoring Association, the largest scanner club in the USA and edits the renown CARMA Profiles. He has written several articles for Monitoring Times and other publications. He also owns the Illinois Highways Page at www.n9jig.com. He has a collection of over 25 scanners and dozens of transceivers and specialized receivers. Professionally, he was a Sergeant with an Illinois police department, in was charge of 9-1-1, Communications and Records. He is happily married with a grown son.