Los Altos Police Department to encrypt public radio channel

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

Starting in March, the Los Altos Police Department will be encrypting its radio communications following new guidance from the California Department of Justice.

The justice department’s order mandates that police departments statewide encrypt personal information such as names, driver’s license numbers and other personal identifiers when transmitted over the radio. Currently, officers must transmit personally identifying information over a radio channel shared with other first responders that’s accessible to the public by commercial scanners and smartphone apps.

The order allows police departments to either encrypt their public channels, create a separate encrypted channel or else find another way to communicate sensitive information.

In a memo to city council, Police Chief Andy Galea announced that the department chose to encrypt the main channel, citing a lack of available staff to manage a separate encrypted channel.

The switch may now limit the media and public’s ability to access and monitor police activity, a fact that Galea acknowledged.

“I certainly understand the concerns expressed by those who would lose access to our main radio channels,” Galea wrote. “The department has embraced social media to keep the community up to date and provides tools for community members to keep informed.”

The move follows the Palo Alto Police Department’s decision to encrypt its channel, which drew quick censure, as the department gave no warning before making the switch and did so without any advisement from the city council. 

Although the justice department directed police departments to make the switch last October, Los Altos is one of only three cities in Santa Clara County yet to make the switch.

Click here to read the full memo.

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