Ontario Provincial Police, public safety radio channels to be encrypted

Shutterstock

ONTARIO – The Public Safety Radio Network (PSRN) in Ontario, a network of radio infrastructure that is used by public agencies and emergency responders in the province, is set to go silent to the public’s ears by 2023 as the network is modernized and upgraded to use updated and encrypted technology.

In October 2018, the province announced the upcoming modernization of the then-20-year-old radio network, which is among the largest and most complex public PSRNs on the continent.

Ontario’s PSRN facilitates communications from agencies including firefighters, conservation officers, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and other emergency first responders, corrections officers, enforcement officers and other public servants working in safety-related roles.

The new system will be using the Motorola Solutions ASTRO 25 technology, which is in line with Project 25, a standard for PSRNs across North America that was established in 2001. All transmissions over this network will be both digital and encrypted, meaning the public will no longer be able to listen to these radio feeds, unlike the current system.

“The real advantage is it’s a much more reliable, more robust system providing 38,000 public servants and emergency responders with a better way to communicate,” said Chris Whaley, the OPP’s lead on their migration to the new provincial system. The overall transformation is government-led but the OPP has a considerable number of users and vehicles and the changeover will require considerable work internally to adjust to the new network, which is to be phased in from 2021 to 2023.

The new system will be interoperable with all of the other systems in Ontario that have previously switched to an encrypted P25 protocol. Each OPP radio will also be GPS-enabled, an advancement that is expected to greatly improve officer safety.

The PSRN is among the last of the systems in North America to not comply with the new standard, according to an Ontario press release.

Switching to an encrypted system may cause concerns about public accountability and transparency. Some 1,000 OPP radios on 40 percent of its talkgroups are currently encrypted. These are mainly used for special units such as covert and tactical operations, while the majority of communications with dispatchers are publicly monitorable using a digital scanner or through an online feed. 

Although rare, situations can arise when criminals may use scanners while committing crimes to stay ahead of the police response. There are also circumstances such as traffic stops, domestic disputes or medical emergencies where personal information about those involved is transmitted over open channels.

Fortunately, said Manitoulin OPP Community Services Officer Marie Ford, members of the press tend to be the main listeners of the current radio feeds and there is a solid working relationship between them and police.

“The media I’ve worked with are professional and not going to breach safety to benefit a news story. If we know they’re going to act responsibly, that’s great, they should be getting those messages out there,” said Constable Ford. “When we have a serious collision with a road closed, to get information out about the closure or a detour is important. The public wants to know that.”

This newspaper is among the media outlets that make use of live OPP audio feeds. 

In some locations where police force radios have gone encrypted, such as Calgary, law enforcement groups have provided accredited media organizations with access to radios for news gathering purposes. Mr. Whaley said that conversation had not come up within the OPP ranks, but said that all possibilities were still under consideration.

“This is a big step so we’re certainly open to that discussion. One thing I would say is we’re trying to follow the trend, the pattern, the intent of privacy commissioners across Canada. Agencies in Alberta and certainly Saskatchewan have certainly been good examples where the privacy commissioners have said ‘now you have encryption, you are to use it,’” said Mr. Whaley, referring to the balance between protecting personal information and being transparent about police operations.

Mr. Whaley said that a possibility in the future may be to have a specific channel or channels unencrypted for media and operational partner benefit, such as a channel in the Greater Toronto Area that is monitored by tow truck operators so they can respond more quickly to crashes without having to be dispatched individually.

The new encrypted radios will be a significant upgrade over the current OPP encrypted units. Mr. Whaley said if one of the encrypted handheld radios were to go missing, the process of securing and re-encrypting the units would require technicians to physically handle every single radio and the process may take upwards of three months. This is an expensive and labour-intensive process.

“If that were to happen with this new system, we can turn the (stolen) radio into a brick by sending it a code to turn off, and send new encryption keys over the air and have all of our radio system re-encrypted in a matter of hours,” he said.

In the modern age of social media, much police information to the public is already being pushed on channels other than official radio communication networks. This offers the potential for richer communications including two-way dialogue, internet links and photo and video sharing, versus the audio- and push-only communications by listening to a scanner.

Some concerns exist whether certain occurrences will be withheld from social media, threatening accountability, but Mr. Whaley said all radio traffic is recorded and can still be used in courtrooms or requested if needed. It just will not be available in real-time any longer.

Mr. Whaley also said local safety groups such as the many volunteer fire departments on Manitoulin Island will not need to purchase new equipment to join this system; those have always been separate from the government agency communications channels.

If not for open radio channels in years past, however, at least one Manitoulin officer might never have joined the force. Retired OPP constable Al Boyd, now a Northeast Town councillor and a member of the Manitoulin Community Policing Advisory Committee, said he used to listen to police calls as a boy which sparked an interest in working in law enforcement and later in amateur radio.

He did acknowledge, however, that the new system will provide more reliable and robust communications abilities. He shared a memory of a night patrolling LaCloche Island when he attempted to run the information of a driver and licence plate but couldn’t reach the dispatcher in Sudbury. This was an older radio system than the current 1998 network.

“All of a sudden, I heard a voice come over the radio that said, ‘Hi OPP in Canada from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. This is Fred with the Missouri State Police. I hear you loud and clear; you’re sounding great—let me run that fellow for you.’ We had crystal clear communications, but I couldn’t call my dispatcher in Sudbury,” he said.

The Manitoulin Amateur Radio Club, of which Mr. Boyd is a member, is also revitalizing its own ham radio transmitter on McLean’s Mountain. It will soon be transmitting both analog and digital signals, moving even the ham operators one step closer to the modern public safety requirements.