Police throw news hounds off the scent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2004, 12:00am

Reporters will no longer be able to monitor the force's radio frequencies when transmissions go digital in November

Reporters will find it virtually impossible to hack into the police's new digital communication system, putting an end to the widespread illegal practice, the journalists' union says.

But it says the blocking of access to police radio calls, picked up by illegal scanners, will ultimately lead to better reporting as journalists will have to rely more on their skills and contacts.

The police's $540 million third-generation Command and Control Communications (CC3) system will be digitally encrypted to prevent eavesdropping - an offence carrying a maximum penalty of $50,000. Police will phase in the system from November.

'In the future it will take journalists with good sources to come up with juicier stories,' the Hong Kong Journalists' Association's vice-chairman, Tam Chi-keung, said.

'Gathering information will become a fight among talented journalists instead of a competition between company resources.

'Although in the short-term the readers could get fewer stories, after the system is installed, eventually news organisations will find ways to keep up with the latest happenings.'

The Hong Kong press is renowned for racing the emergency services to crime and accident scenes, giving readers graphic and instant descriptions of the events as they unfold.

It is an open secret that they achieve this by using scanners to monitor police radios.

Mr Tam said it was time for the practice to stop as monitoring police radio frequencies was illegal.

The new system also would put an end to richer news organisations outracing their smaller competitors to scenes simply because they had the luxury of having hundreds of journalists on standby, Mr Tam said.

Chief Superintendent Alfred Ma Wai-luk, head of the force's public relations, said the police were looking for more ways to satisfy the media's appetite for stories.

'[The flow of information] is one of our concerns,' Mr Ma said. 'We hope to set up a protocol where our colleagues will immediately give us information about the bigger stories, so we can forward them to the press.'

He conceded that the media would not get the same amount of information after CC3 was installed.

Roger Cheng Shu-Kwan, associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's electrical and electronic engineering department, said it would be 'virtually impossible' to hack into a digitally encrypted communication system.

'Just a little bit of effort in encrypting the digital signal would make it very difficult to crack,' Dr Cheng said. 'In theory, every signal could be cracked after exhaustive analysis, but even using the most powerful computers, the process would take maybe 100 years.'

The system was designed by Motorola and will be adopted in phases - starting with divisions in the New Territories from November - and should be fully installed by 2006.

The old analogue system, also built by the Motorola, was introduced in 1990 and is struggling to cope with operational demands.

The new system will offer a wider area of coverage and the handsets are smaller and lighter.

It handles voice and data traffic, the 999 emergency phone network, a mobile computing system, a vehicle location system and global positioning system.

In terms of technical advances, CC3 will be able to automatically locate where a 999 emergency telephone call is made from.

In addition, voice or conference calls can be held while accessing data services.

The system's wireless capabilities will allow officers to send and receive text messages, for example, when conducting licence checks, or to access databases on criminals.

Eventually, even photographic images will be made available on the wireless system.

Global positioning system technology will allow for faster location of police vehicles capable of responding to emergencies.

Police said the despatchers would have access to information on electronic maps, allowing for a speedy, more efficient visual assessment of available resources and manpower.