Will the Boston Bombings Kill the Public Police Scanner?

Mother Jones

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Tens of thousands of people were tracking the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on Friday morning when the police scanner went dark.* City officials had taken to Twitter to chide social-media users for publicizing unverified reports and key details, such as the location of police units. But the decision to shut the scanner down ultimately fell to Broadcastify, a company that offers a free online scanner app. “Boston area law enforcement feeds are temporarily offline to protect law enforcement resources and their efforts during the manhunt underway in the Boston Metro area,” a statement on the firm’s website informed users.

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The suspension of the scanner feed was temporary, and by no means comprehensive; it was just a little bit harder to find. But that could soon change. Over the last few years, an increasing number of municipalities have ditched their old scanners for encrypted channels. That, in turn, has left reporters and transparency advocates scrambling to keep up. Given the post-manhunt focus on scanner traffic, Watertown could be the beginning of a big switch. As Breaking News‘ Cory Bergman tweeted, “Safe bet that every major police force in the country will encrypt their radios after this is over.”

Police scanners have been accessible to private citizens and shortwave hobbyists for years, but things have come to a head over the last decade, as technological advancements have made it possible for almost anyone to listen in—and from anywhere.

For now, regulation is fairly weak. In 1997, after a Florida couple secretly recorded a meeting of top House Republicans, Congress considered the Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act, which would have made it illegal for reporters to use scanners to monitor police and fire activity. (The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.) A handful of states, such as Indiana, prohibit the possession of police scanner smartphone apps due to concerns that criminals will use them to better avoid detection when they’re on the run—somewhat redundant, given that it’s already a crime to use police scanner information to aid and abet a crime.

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Will the Boston Bombings Kill the Public Police Scanner?

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