The new system is designed to allow multiple emergency response agencies to communicate with each other, something not possible with older, analog radios now used by most departments. In addition to standard VHF communications, the new radios facilitate encrypted (coded) transmissions.
According to the Aug. 10 story, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania “overheard conversations that included descriptions of undercover agents and confidential informants, plans for forthcoming arrests and information on the technology used in surveillance operations.
Their research also shows that the radios can be effectively jammed using a pink electronic child’s toy and that the standard used by the radios “provides a convenient means for an attacker” to continuously track the location of a radio’s user. Another problem is that the P25 radios allow jamming at relatively low power, enabling the researchers to prevent reception using a $30 toy pager designed for pre-teens.
Last week, the Brentwood City Council approved an $827,000 expenditure for the Motorola system – the same one cited in the news report and study – which is expected to be up and running by the middle of September.
Wade Gomes, a former BART Police captain, now an administrative liaison with the BPD, said his interpretation of the report was that problems seemed to be largely due to user error.
“I’ve had the chance to quickly read the study and conclude that most of the problems are due to poor setup of the systems, poor training of the users and poor response to training – where trained operators forget to switch their radios from clear to encrypted traffic,” said Gomes. “The errors are mostly due to a human factor and not the equipment itself.”
But Holly Joshi, public information officer for the Oakland Police Department – which has used the P25 system for about 90 days – said the new radios are indeed flawed.
“There are a number of problems with this system,” said Joshi. “Sometimes the officers in the field can’t hear the dispatchers or hear one another. We’re working with the manufacturer and hoping the issue gets corrected. I know they’re working on it and trying to fix the problem.”
Despite the ongoing advances in technology, the possibilities for errors – human or mechanical – are always a factor, said Gomes: “I guess the bottom line is that no mechanical device is perfect. And we must find the ways and means to mitigate the imperfections.
“If it (the new radio system) becomes a serious problem, the Brentwood PD will have dual band radios allowing us to operate on either the P25 800 digital trunking frequencies or conventional VHF frequencies, which do not have these vulnerabilities.”
As for the Oakland Police Department’s situation, Joshi said she remains cautiously optimistic that the kinks in the new system will get worked out. A meeting between the City of Oakland, the Oakland Police Department and the makers of the P25 radios is scheduled for next week, according to Joshi.
“We’re in the wait-and-see mode right now,” said Joshi, who added that the department has no immediate plans to drop the P25 system. “We know that every new system, especially something as drastic as this one, has things that need to be worked out. But we have to balance that understanding with the public’s safety. We can’t have a product that doesn’t work.”
Gomes intends to bring up the Wall Street Journal article and study during the next meeting of the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority, which oversees the radio program.
“I’ll be passing on these articles to my group next week for comment,” said Gomes. “I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say.”