Sheriff concerned over encryption removal

Published 10:57 am Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The vote to remove an advanced encryption system from a newly approved communication system for Charlotte County has Sheriff Thomas Jones and others concerned over safety and privacy issues.

In August Charlotte County Board of Supervisors (BOS) unanimously voted to spend 2.8 million on a new communication system that will help EMS, police and the school system better communicate.
A month later, during the September meeting, supervisors voted to remove an advanced encryption system from the newly approved communication system.

Supervisor Royal Freeman who represents the Bacon/Saxe District and is employed by the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department did not agree with the removal and cast a no vote. “I feel very strongly that I was correct in my vote,” said Freeman. “There are a couple of reasons I voted in favor of the encrypted radio system. The primary reasons are the safety and privacy of the citizens of Charlotte County.”

At the cost of $21,000 the removal of the system is something that Sheriff Jones has concerns with as well. “With no encryption, anyone with a scanner can hear everything that we are saying,” said Sheriff Jones. “The very home you are getting ready to raid for drugs may be sitting there listening to it on the scanner.” Sheriff Jones also said he was concerned with citizens hearing social security numbers and other private information that is communicated between his officers.
Freeman added that there have been incidents nationwide where criminals have been actively listening to law enforcement officer’s communications in real time. “This can hinder law enforcement response and put citizens  and officers in immediate danger,” he said. “Imagine if God forbid, we had an active shooter in our area and the shooter was listening to our officers movements and responses.”

Jones continued to say that during the discussion as to whether to keep the advance encryption, he was not asked about it. “I haven’t been asked any questions about (it),” said Jones. “Nobody has come over here to ask me about the encryption or the radios.”

According to Sheriff Jones, his department has been using an encrypted system when communicating for the past 10 years or more.

In addition to the removal of the advanced encryption, supervisors also voted to not provide radios to state police troopers working Charlotte County. This is something that Jones says he has always offered to troopers. “When we took the SIRS (Sheriff inter-jurisdictional Radio System) units out of the patrol cars, I gave the troopers working this county radios so we could communicate with them,” the Sheriff added.

“Sometimes the deputy is all that the trooper has and vice versa when something happens— and they need to be able to communicate with each other,” added 911 coordinator, Chris Russell.

Sheriff Jones agreed with Russell and said that he asked the board, “How much is a life worth to you.”

Supervisor Freeman said he had been asked about supplying law enforcement partners with portable radios. “In rural areas law enforcement agencies often work together,” he explained. “By sharing radios with troopers, it cuts out a communications step and speeds up emergency response. For example, instead of Charlotte dispatch calling State Police in Appomattox and then Appomattox calling a trooper to an accident scene our dispatcher can directly communicate with that trooper.”

According to County Administrator Daniel Witt the radios will come with high-level factory encryption. The advanced encryption is a higher-level encryption, typically used by large urban police departments.

“Our consultant does not think this is a necessity for Charlotte County,” said Witt. “Also, the new system is a P-25 system approved by the FCC and endorsed by every public safety professional organization. It has a higher level of interoperability between local, state and federal agencies and has a high level of encryption built into it.”

Witt also stated that the Communication Committee recommended keeping the AES encryption, but it was a board decision to remove it.

Wylliesburg/Red Oak Supervisor Kay Pierantoni who is a member of the committee said she asked questions about the advanced encryption from outside experts. “I learned of no other counties that use this,” she said. “The extra encryption we are asking taxpayers to pay for is, I believe, used by CIA, FBI. We are a poor rural County.”

Aspen/Phenix Supervisor Donna Fore said that the new system would have enough encryption built-in and she feels that law enforcement will have no problems communicating. “The new radios are made by Motorola and are very high quality. They will be a big improvement for all of our fire, rescue, schools and law enforcement,” she added.

Board Chairman, Garland Hamlett, Jr. said his reasoning for voting against the advance encryption was to save the county money.

“Encryption would cost additional monies, and this would be paid for by the taxpayers,” said Hamlett. “The County doesn’t have extra monies to be just spending; therefore, we have to cut and save where we can.”

Hamlett also echoed Pierantoni and Fore’s comments that the factory radios have enough encryptions to provide the needed security that Sheriff Jones is concerned about.

“As long as I am Sheriff we are going to keep what we already have,” said Jones.

Jones’ term expires in December, and he is not seeking re-election.

According to Witt, the process has been started with a lot of behind the scenes work being done. “Staff will soon begin working with tower companies to determine application requirements, necessary studies and needed upgrades at specific tower sites associated with the placement of our equipment,” said Witt.

The system will take approximately one year to become operational.