Toronto police to buy encrypted radios

Published 11 March 2010

The Toronto police will spend CAN$35 million on encrypted radios; new system may shut out public eavesdroppers — by tow-truck drivers, the media, scanning enthusiasts — starting with the June 2010 G20 summit

Eavesdropping on police radio will soon be a thing of the past in Toronto as the force moves to launch a CAN$35 million encrypted system that blocks out the public — including tow-truck drivers, reporters, and others who may want to know what’s happening out there.

Though new to many cities, radio encryption has been employed for decades around the globe, spurred on by post-9/11 security concerns. It is used by the U.S. secret service, CIA, and DHS, as well as some state and local forces, though curiously not by New York City police.

The Toronto Star’s Henry Stancu writes that while officials acknowledge encryption is coming to Toronto — as soon as the G20 summit in June — nobody wants to discuss specifics, citing “security concerns.”

Mark Pugash, director of public information for Toronto police, did not give a target date, and Stancu writes that the operating budget doesn’t itemize the cost.

Police Service Board chair Alok Mukherjee describes encryption as a “long-term capital expense” the city will benefit from introducing now because the federal government will pay half the cost under its commitments toward security for the G20. Stancu notes that costs have dropped drastically over the past decade, but just one encrypted radio costs $5,000, according to a Motorola dealer.

A communications insider said police are still maintaining the old Motorola radio system, but also testing encrypted radios for use in sensitive areas such as the emergency task force, undercover operations, and summit preparations, in conjunction with the RCMP.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a blackout is causing anxiety to those who routinely monitor police, fire and ambulance calls, including media outlets, independent tow-truck drivers and scanner buffs,” Stancu writes. For suddenly stranded motorists, it may mean a longer wait for a tow — and for those stuck behind a stalled vehicle or accident, a longer backup.

Not everybody is happy with encryption plan. There are more than 1,000 independent tow trucks work the GTA streets, and the truck drives listen in on police communication so they can rush to the scene of an accident. The media also depend on open access to police radio so they can rush reporters and photographers to the scene of a crime.

Pugash says there is no “enshrined right” of the public or news media to listen in to emergency calls, despite the freedom they’ve had to do so until now.