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Police Scanner Apps
  • ipitythefool July 25, 2013 - 11:46 am #81266 Reply

    Hi ArlNow’ers! I have a topic for discussion that is a bit outside of the norm for this forum (e.g. bikes vs. cars, trolley vs. bus, sane vs. insane, etc).


    Police stations around the country were required a few years ago to switch from an analog signal (anyone could pick up) to a digital one that provided more security and was a more expensive device for normal civilians to get. I’m sure everybody here is aware that you can now download apps on your iPhone or Android phones that allow civilians to listen into police scanners both locally and worldwide. In most cases these apps are free or low cost for certain features.


    A few weeks ago, I noticed an uptick of crime reports in my neighborhood in Arlington so I downloaded an app on my iPhone that allowed me to listen in to the local police chatter. I felt like it was helpful because at least i would know when something major when down in Arlington and/or if there was a significant weather event, at least i could know what’s going on out there if my power went out. (Also, let’s face it, I just found it fun to know the drama that unfolds outside the bars after midnight on the weekends). Anyways, recently the signal in Arlington Co. and many other police stations around the country have gone silent because they are switching to an encrypted signal. When I researched the topic some it made a lot of sense for police to be concerned. Criminals were using these apps to commit crimes and listening in to see if the police were called and to try and get away. Of course, using an app like that while committing a crime this is illegal in Virginia and I believe Maryland.


    A few points of discussion though.

    1. Does this hinder journalist from getting the information they need to report stories and keep the public informed? A lot of journalist use police scanners to watch for developing stories. Although they don’t report X, Y, Z was said on the scanner, they do use it as raw information and allows them to follow up on it during official press conferences.

    2. I’ve read more than one post on this site that’s said that ACPD does not release the details of all of the calls they go on and some crimes may not be accurately documented. Is there a concern from the public that it would make it more difficult for the average citizen to know what crimes are happening in their area?

    3. Police scanners have been around for a long time, however the portability and low (or no) cost of modern technology makes it possible for criminals to use and abuse something that the general public has been able to access for many decades. Do we, as citizens, have a right to listen into police signals? Whenever there are flashing lights on the side of the road, people can’t help but to look and wonder what’s going on. In general, I think people are inquisitive but does that give them the right to listen into police chatter to see what’s happening?


    Thanks and I’d appreciate any of your thoughts.

    Jotorious July 25, 2013 - 12:07 pm #81281 Reply

    Good questions…But instead of asking if we have a right to listen in to police comms., I would ask should we have the right to listen into police comms.?

    Based on the recent NSA revelations, it appears the US Government has determined that some infringement on what has, IMO, traditionally been protected by the 4th Amendment is acceptable in the name of public safety. Under that same sort of mindset/ tradeoff, It is my opinion that the gains of cleartext police comms. being accessible to everyone outweighs the cost of making cleartext police comms available to everyone. If bad guys go free because public oversight gives away our methods and tactics, so be it.

    Quoth the Raven July 25, 2013 - 12:24 pm #81287 Reply

    Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with Jotorious more.  There is a difference between transparency when it comes to police and police activities, and actually listening in to their communications.  4th Amendment describes the relationship between the gov’t and the public.  It does not go the other way.  But there are plenty of laws that do (FOIA, for example).  If there is even the slightest chance that criminals use scanners to monitor police activity while they are committing a crime, then the costs outweigh the benefits.

    To answer Question #1, above – in my opinion, journalists certainly have the 1st amend right to publish what they get.  But there is no right to the info itself, absent some other authority mandating that info’s release.  So the scanner access may indeed hinder a journalist’s ability to obtain info.  But there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about it.

    novasteve July 25, 2013 - 12:24 pm #81288 Reply

    Saying criminals don’t have a right to use a scanner despite the signals being broadcasted is like saying you can charge a bank robber for using a road as well as another crime..


    Funny how the government has a “right” to listen in on us, but we can’t listen in on them, despite them claiming to be “of the people, by the people”

    hbar July 25, 2013 - 12:25 pm #81290 Reply

    I am the provider of the Arlington County police feed. As far as I know, they have not gone encrypted. My scanner occassionally stops receiving the ACPD system for a couple days at a time and I cannot figure out exactly why. This occurs every 2 or 3 months. I will check it out when I get home. This is most likely why you are not hearing anything right now, rather than encryption.

    I can tell you that the broader issues you inquire about have been addressed (but not resolved!) at length by the scanner community, and the press. A good place to start is the forums on the Web site http://www.radioreference.com.

    Jotorious July 25, 2013 - 12:45 pm #81297 Reply

    @quote the raven,

    Is it your opinion that we (citizens) have the right to observe the police when in the course of their duties on public property? Do we (citizens) have the right to sit on the curb and listen to them discuss what’s happening on the streets of Clarendon at 2:00 AM? How are these examples different from listening into their comms.?

    Because people might be engaging in criminal behavior (which incidentally gets determined on a later date by a judge or jury) that doesn’t negate their rights. So perhaps it comes down to should the police be allowed to systematically withhold operational information from the public in the name of upholding public safety?

    The Ends shouldn’t have to justify the Means but it seems like you might favor the Ends ( Stopping Crime) and the means might not be so important.

    Does anyone know if the police log all their radio communications?

    Quoth the Raven July 25, 2013 - 1:19 pm #81306 Reply

    J – to answer:  yes, we have that right.  But listening to a police conversation held on a public street is different from listening to one held over a scanner.  In your example, the police clearly don’t care whether or not they’re overheard, for whatever reason.  In the scanner situation, they apparently do (which is why they’re moving towards encryption).  Or you can look at it this way – if two policemen were having a conversation in their car, with the windows closed, would they object to to you attaching a listening device to the window?  Should you have the right to do that?

    Police ALWAYS withhold operational information, because simply put the public doesn’t have the right to know everything. Oversight is important, but that doesn’t mean that every Joe Schmo has the right to know exactly what the cops are doing.

    johnny b July 25, 2013 - 10:58 pm #81371 Reply

    I believe we all have the right to listen to most frequencies out there with some exceptions….cell phone freqs and certaing military freqs are restricted.

    If you want to listen to the new digital systems most modern police and fire have switched to, just pony up about 400-500 bucks and buy a good scanner.

    However if the system you listen to employs ‘encryption’, then you are out of luck. Importing a foreign scanner that may beat certain forms of encryption is illegal. In fact if you are a wiz with electronics and build a ‘decryption’ device to try and intercept encrypted comms, that is also illegal.

    I’m not familiar with the iphone apps, but i’m assuming they grab the single ‘dispatch’ channel available on the web for most metro areas.

    But as I mentioned above, if you want to listen to the cops when you see that chopper overhead and want to hear the ‘chase’ firsthand, you’ll need to buy a digital scanner, and they ain’t cheap. I agree with the above poster and recommend radioreference.com as well.

    On the other hand if you want to hear yer favorite Nascar driver at the track, you can get a scanner and headphones for less than 100 bucks, grab your small cooler, and go sit in the stands and listen to all the cussin’ !!

    ipitythefool February 10, 2015 - 1:04 am #122736 Reply

    Not sure how long it has been down but I noticed tonight that the Arlington co. police scanner station on radioreference.com is down. There was a large police response on Pershing drive between Glebe and Washington blvd. I drove by around 7:45 and it looked like 10 police cars were surrounding a church with lights blazing. I couldn’t tell what happened so I decided to check the scanner when I got home. It says it was deleted so maybe the signal went down for good or the provider (hbar) decided to shut down. Shame. Anyone know what happened?

    agga February 11, 2015 - 9:27 am #122831 Reply
    ipitythefool February 11, 2015 - 11:39 am #122841 Reply

    I saw that too agga but I don’t think ACPD or ACFD radio transmissions are encrypted

    CourtLady February 11, 2015 - 12:24 pm #122852 Reply

    I just heard a story on NPR about this today.  Apparently they are currently encrypted, but they are moving to make them not encrypted, unless there is activity going on that needs to be secret (i.e. sting on a meth lab or something).  Sorry I can’t find the link. It was a news item at the top of the hour at 11 am.

    ipitythefool February 11, 2015 - 1:05 pm #122856 Reply

    Yeah I think all the jurisdictions in this area either need a standardized way to encrypt or not at all. I have to say that it is good to be able to hear this stuff sometimes: e.g. storms, emergencies, or just a spike in crime in your neighborhood. It is a fine line though because criminals are using it to track police activities.

    I think counties and online websites like radioreference.com (which feeds most of the iphone or android apps) should come together and maybe put a 15 minute delay on broadcasting the transmissions or something.

    BBMS February 12, 2015 - 11:32 am #122936 Reply

    I think some people are confusing encryption with digitization.  It’s true, DC is migrating to some encryption on their radios, which leaves hobbyist listeners out of luck.  But the other 99% of communications in the DC area are not encrypted, but they are digitized which requires a more advanced scanner, as someone mentioned above.  But it’s a legal scanner to purchase.  That’s the difference with encryption, which goes hand in hand with the FCC denying the availability of purchasing hardware of software capable of decrypting that signal.  Most Secret Service, Capitol Hill Police etc stuff is encrypted as well.  But Arlington, to my knowledge, does not encrypt any traffic.  I know because I’m frequently listening to their system and everything comes in clear, plus my scanner has a screen notification when it is receiving encrypted communications, in which case it is silent but does show the channel being received and flashes “ENC”

    The police are well aware their comms are receivable.  Frankly it’s kind of funny, lots of times they call each other on the radio only to say “call me on my cell” when they need more privacy.  I’ve also heard a case where an officer had to search a house that was in an alarm state, and the homeowner outside relayed the alarm disable code for the panel through another officer outside and it was sent over the radios.  After they cleared the scene they mentioned that they should inform the homeowner to change their code since it went out over the air.  The other offshoot of digitization is that the system is an integrated voice and data system.  Which means a lot of routine radio calls (e.g., unit arriving at a call destination) are now pushed to the data terminals in the squad cars and answered with a simple screen or button touch.  You don’t hear that through a scanner speaker.

    Streaming and “scanner” apps are nice and can be a supplementary way to find out what’s going on, but they don’t do a great job of really scanning a wide variety of systems and jurisdictions at the same time.  Base station scanners are still the way to go.  On the other hand, my 996XT scanner can’t listen to LAPD sitting here on my shelf in Arlington.

    I’m sure things will eventually change although I’m not sure coordinated regional encryption will be adopted anytime in the next several years.  But having used scanners around here for over 30 years I know the upgrades in hardware necessary to keep in the loop never really end.

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