Federal Public Safety Radios Have Security Flaws

Encrypted transmissions were often sent in the clear and university researchers were able to intercept sensitive traffic sent by law-enforcement officials, study finds.

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters

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Portable radios federal law enforcement officials use to communicate with one another have security flaws that allowed researchers to intercept sensitive traffic on them, including information that could identify confidential informants and undercover agents, according to a new study.

Government public-safety personnel use VHF and UHF short-range handheld radios to speak to one another that are based on a series of protocols that include the security of the devices, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania researchers.

However, that protocol--called APCO Project 25, or P25--has "a number of limitations and weaknesses" that allow what is meant to be encrypted traffic to be intercepted by third parties, researchers found.

The Wall Street Journal first published the results of the study and also posted a link to it online.

University researchers Sandy Clark, Travis Goodspeed, Perry Metzger, Zachary Wasserman and Kevin Xu authored the study, called "Why (Special Agent) Johnny (Still) Can't Encrypt: A Security Analysis of the APCO Project 25 Two-Way Radio System." They said they have contacted the federal government about their findings.

The researchers said they analyzed over-the-air P25 traffic being sent on the two-way radio systems and found that "a significant fraction" of sensitive data that was meant to be encrypted was actually sent in the clear, a fact that was undetected by other users.

To conduct the study, researchers built a P25 traffic interception system for federal frequency bands and operated it in two U.S. metropolitan areas over a two-year period. During that period, researchers noticed three scenarios in which sensitive traffic that was meant to be encrypted was sent in the clear: through individual error, group error or a keying failure.

In the first instance, at least one user would be transmitting in the clear but others were encrypted. However, the user or users in the clear would still receive encrypted traffic without it being detected, according to the study.

In the second instance, all of the users communicating on the devices were in the clear but believed they were operating in encrypted mode. In the third instance, one of the users didn't have the correct encryption key for a transmission and asked other users to switch to clear mode to communicate effectively.

In addition to information that could compromise undercover agents and confidential informants, researchers intercepted sensitive traffic during the study that included: names and locations of criminal investigative targets, including those involved in organized crime; locations and description of surveillance operatives and their vehicles; and plans for forthcoming arrest, raids and other confidential operations, according to the study.

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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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