The New York Police Department is receiving mounting criticism for its plan to encrypt its radio communications system, with experts warning about the move’s threat to transparency and accountability, The Guardian reports. NYPD radio signals have been publicly accessible since 1932, allowing journalists and civilians to listen to police communications. The NYPD will now be encrypting its radio channels for the first time ever. Police radio encryption is already underway in several US cities, including Chicago and Denver. Since starting in July, 10 precincts have fully encrypted their radio systems. The entire “upgrade” to a new, encrypted radio system will be completed by December 2024 and cost an estimated $400 million, a hefty price tag as several city agencies have been forced to swallow major budget cuts.
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of a New York-based civil rights organization, called planned encryption a “disturbing attack on transparency and public oversight of the police”. Critics of encryption say that the public radio channels are necessary for police accountability, press freedom and public safety. Several police-involved killings have been uncovered by the press after listening to police radios. Press freedom advocates have also argued that encrypting police radios will prevent journalists from accurately reporting or covering police misconduct, ultimately allowing the NYPD to decide what should be considered news. Public access to radio is also necessary to keep the public safe during citywide emergencies and major events. Daniel Schwarz, senior privacy and technology strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said access to police radio also kept protestors safe during 2020 protests for George Floyd in New York. The NYPD has argued that encrypting its radio system is necessary to prevent criminals from gaining information.