PSNI to trial wireless encryption technology

29 Jul 2003

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has revealed that it is to trial the latest generation of high-level TETRA encryption systems across its new state-of-the-art wireless digital radio system. The deployment is said to be the first such Class 3 encryption system to be rolled out anywhere in the world.

As part of its deal with Motorola, a new suite of encryption software code-named Dimetra SecureNet will be deployed across the police force’s TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) digital radio system. The Dimetra technology will add a new layer of protection against criminal eavesdropping on communications, impersonating officers on the air and deliberate clogging of radio systems at critical times.

A spokesperson at the PSNI explained: “Security of communications is essential to our operations and this upgrade to our system which is currently undergoing installation is part of a programme to give us the most secure wide area police communications system across the UK services.”

In the UK, 11 police forces using Motorola-supplied TETRA digital radio communications systems operated by mmO2 Airwave are protected against eavesdropping by encryption. Analogue systems used by the remainder of the emergency services in the UK, consisting of 40 police forces as well as all ambulance and fire services, do not have the added protection of digital and encrypted communication and remain vulnerable to eavesdropping via scanning devices.

Increasingly, criminals are eavesdropping on emergency services to gain advance warning of action against them, and it is difficult to keep major operations secret if any of the forces involved are not using encrypted digital radio. This can have a major impact on police operations efficiency, as a UK police force recently discovered when they changed to their new Airwave system and achieved an immediate positive impact on their success in fighting drug-related crime.

Although Class 3 encryption has been available for test and demonstration purposes for some time, Motorola is the first company to roll out ETSI Class 3 encryption in its Dimetra SecureNet system. The Dimetra SecureNet system uses embedded encryption measures to protect not just the transmission content, but also user identities and signalling data. This means that people using scanners cannot eavesdrop or track users and cloned radios cannot be used for misinformation.

The PSNI is the latest in a number of organisations in Ireland to trial or adopt TETRA technology. In recent weeks Motorola signed a €12m contract with Dublin’s new Luas rail network to implement a system that will safeguard health and safety and the smooth running of the new service.

TETRA technology paves the way for an encrypted, instantaneous voice and data network that is swiftly being adopted by police and emergency forces as well as transport companies throughout the world. For example, unlike existing mobile networks, TETRA is a private network that enables instantaneous voice communications and can allow police officers to call up extra support, look up criminal records and car registration details while on the move, and enable headquarters to know exactly where officers and vehicles are at any given time on a mapping system.

Motorola is also competing for the €90m Garda TETRA network tender. The tender, unveiled in 1999, has so far been piloted by Nokia, but a second tender for the full installation of the secure network has sparked major competition amongst communications equipment manufacturers.

By John Kennedy