Encrypted Radio Transmission: What is & What is Not Safe

Sometimes you just want your radio transmission to be encrypted.

Why would you want an encrypted radio transmission? What is an encrypted radio transmission? 

Encryption in radio communications allows secure communication between people by using the same encryption key to encrypt all radios in a group. 

The encryption key is like a secret number or password that must be discovered in order to decrypt the conversation.

Maybe because you do not want your conversation broadcast to everyone. You might also want to keep someone from listening in on what you are doing, or how that encounter went.

Or maybe you are just trying to be safe. Whatever the reason, it certainly is easy enough for anyone with a radio scanner to listen in if they know which frequency you are transmitting on.

And even if someone was not able to hear what you are saying, they could at least figure out where you are by triangulating your position.

As far as using encrypted radio transmissions, it can be difficult to use encrypted messages for all conversations, especially when the messages have multiple recipients.

Let's Dive into some of the most popular questions revolving the topic of encrypted radios:

Encrypted Radio Transmission: Let's dive into explaining what is encrypted radio transmissions, radios that are encrypted and uses cases for when you want to ...

How do you Send An Encrypted Radio Transmission?

There are several ways to encrypt radio transmissions.

Encryption algorithms allow users to change the data appearing in a signal to prevent eavesdropping or jamming. This is done by both altering the characteristics of the transmitted data and also changing the order in which it appears.

Many cryptographic systems, such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), Inherently Secure Data Transmission System (IS-1304), One Time Pad (OTP), Rivest Cipher 4 (RC4) and more use this concept of altering data properties, but not necessarily its distribution in time, when encoding audio data.

Are Baofeng Radios Encrypted?

Most Baofeng Radios are not encrypted out of the box. You would have to make modifications to the unit in order to encrypt your transmission. 

How do you Encode a Voice Transmission?

Encoding a voice signal can be accomplished in a number of different ways.

One method is using a vocoder, which uses a set of known speech synthesis frequencies to encode the analog information in a digital format. Vocoders can operate in either an analog or digital mode and are used to modulate carriers with voice signals.

A vocoder typically consists of two subsystems: the front end and the back end.

The front end has an excitation signal that can be a function of either a codebook or random noise samples. This is then passed through a filter where its spectral characteristics are altered according to the outgoing speech's frequency content.

The output from this stage is fed through another filter whose output becomes the input for the back-end analysis section. Here, various parameters such as pitch period, voicing decision, etc., are derived from the incoming signal, which are then encoded and made available for transmission.

Note that the modulator front end can produce signals more efficiently than a simple encoding of speech samples; therefore, vocoders are more efficient than audio compression algorithms (such as MP3 or Vorbis) at transmitting audio over bandwidth-constrained connections.

One common example is Frequency Shift Keying (FSK).  This technique simply shifts the frequency of the radio carrier up or down to correspond with 1's or 0's, respectively.

For example, if you have a signal on 146.520 MHz, it might shift this by +1 kHz to 147.520 MHz when sending a "1" and shift it by -1 kHz to 146.520 MHz for a "0". This is actually the simplest form of FSK.  The main drawback with this type of modulation is that it can interfere with other users on your same frequency.

A new method under development will send your voice using a series of dots and dashes like Morse code, but in this case the dots and dashes stand for complex waveforms rather than simple tones.  

The main advantage of this method is that it doesn't interfere with existing license-free systems at all, so there's no risk of jamming frequencies needed for fire or ambulance communications.

How do you Receive Encoded Transmissions?

Decoding encrypted radio signals does not require much more hardware than what you need to receive regular audio transmissions; however, it does require significantly more processing power than simply listening to audio.  

To decode encrypted transmissions, you'll need a software defined radio (SDR) device.

The SDR will include an RF front end for receiving the transmission (and possibly transmitting as well), an ADC (Analog to Digital Converter) to digitize it, and finally some sort of computer with enough CPU power to run the decoding algorithm.

What are some Voice Encryption Algorithms?

There are many different types of voice encryption algorithms; however, only a few are common enough to be worth mentioning here.  One is called FH-AES128c, which uses 128 bit AES in counter mode with 128 bit key update every 40 ms using 32 bit incrementing counters and 128 bit keystream.  

An older voice encryption method that is still in use today is called FH-E9 (E9 stands for Enhanced 9). This uses a very long, complex 40 byte key and an even longer table to pre-compute the product of two encryption key schedules.  The table used contains 2048 bytes of data, but because it's so large, AES128c is typically used instead.

Finally, we have the old-time tested Morse code! An example of this can be found here. This is the oldest radio communications there is.

Are Encrypted Radios Legal?

This is where it gets tricky. It is legal to encrypt your radios but there are issues with using encrypted messages that can be disallowed by law enforcement or the military.

Enabling encryption on your radio does not make the message unreadable to anyone within range of receiving it, especially if they use a compatible type of radio.

The reason for this is because the radios are all using the same frequency. The only way someone cannot read your transmissions is if they do not have a radio that can either decode or encrypt what you are saying.

There are radios that offer preset encrypted channels. 

Is it Legal to use Encryption on Ham Radio?

Encryption, as far as ham radio is concerned, falls under the same set of rules as ham radio transmissions in general.

The only thing different is the length of time you are allowed to encrypt your messages.

According to federal code, anyone using an amateur radio must accept incoming unencrypted messages.

But you can encrypt outgoing messages for a maximum of 72 hours after which point they must be sent out unencrypted or not at all.

Encrypted hams are considered to be just like any other ham with one exception: encryption counts against your duty cycle because it takes up more time than standard transmissions do.

This means that even if it is allowed according to federal laws but overused and slows down response times or prevents proper communication, then there might be consequences - especially when lives are at stake.

Are DMR Radios Encrypted?

DMR is digital mobile radio. And yes, it is encrypted with most available radios also allowing you to turn the encryption feature off.

As far as doing so is concerned - there are specific times wherein it might not be wise to do so considering that DMR has open slots which anyone can monitor.

But for those who cannot use unencrypted transmissions, they can use VOX mode or push-to-talk buttons just like traditional analog radios.

Can Radio Signals be Encrypted?

There are different kinds of encryption available for users who want their information to remain private.

One type is called "data encryption" and it only scrambles the data within your transmission. Your carrier still knows where you are sending it, how much data you've sent out, etcetera.

This means that your identity can be traced even if there is no way to decrypt your messages … which happens often with most commercial services because most governments have an agreement with these companies.

Another kind of encryption is called "data privacy". Data privacy encrypts all of your outgoing messages so that not even your service provider can read them - but they cannot know who you are sending messages too or what the size of the message being sent is.

What is a Trunked Frequency?

A trunked frequency is a group of frequencies that are grouped together and used to allow multiple voice or data transmissions at one time.

Trunking allows the groups to transition seamlessly from transmitted message to transmitted message with no lag in between. This means that it can accommodate more users without them having to take turns transmitting.

Is it Legal to Listen to Police Radios?

It is legal to listen to Police Radios on a scanner but there are regulations when it comes to spying on private conversations or police radio communications. In some states it is illegal to listen to the Police scanner

According to federal law, you cannot use your radio in a way that will intercept any conversation which does not want you to hear their transmissions - even if they happen upon the same channel as yours currently is. A Law Enforcement agency channel is typically Channel 9 

-View all Channels & Download Your PDF here.

This can be considered illegal eavesdropping has gone so far as some states have prosecuted people for doing so.

Are Two-Way Radios Encrypted?

Some two-way radios are encrypted but they need to have an encryption switch in order for them to work.

It is most useful when people who are communicating on different radio frequencies than each other want to keep their transmissions secret from others with the same type of two-way radio.

Can You Encrypt CB Radios?

Citizen's Band radios are not encryptable because their use was intended for civilian purposes only - which means that there were never any plans for them to be used by law enforcement or emergency personnel.

Their line of sight capabilities also make it difficult for them to be controlled properly by someone in charge even if they were able to encrypt their messages.

Is FRS Encrypted?

FRS (Family Radio Service) radios are not encrypted and transmit for civilian use.

Are GMRS Radios Encrypted?  

GMRS radios service are not encrypted for civilian use as service was developed to be used by civilians (for recreation purposes).

Are Marine Radios Encrypted?  

Marine radios are usually set up to communicate directly with satellites or other vessels so encryption is unnecessary - but they can also be used for VHF transmissions once on land. These too are unencrypted.

Is Ham Radio Encrypted?  

Most ham radio services do allow their users to encrypt their transmissions... especially when using long-range communications technology. Encrypting is possible with Ham Radios by offering encryption keys. 

A lot of them also have data privacy or voice privacy which scrambles all outgoing messages so that it cannot be intercepted by anybody else who might be trying to listen in.

Are Walkie Talkies Encrypted? 

As a general rule of thumb, walkie talkie technology is mostly used for recreation purposes. There are some units that will allow users to encrypt their messages however - there are very few walkie talkies that have a function to encrypt a message.

Can Civilian's Buy Encrypted Radios?

Most commercially sold encrypted radios are for professional use - but there is a chance that they might be available in the private sector as well. It is best to check with your local retailer before you buy one in hopes of getting encrypted radios.

Hi & Welcome!

My name is Jeremy and I have been an avid car nut for many year. My first car was an 1987 Honda CRX. I put in my first Kenwood stereo, amp, 2 10" JLs and a CB Radio in it and have been an avid user of CBs and car radios for years. I'll do my best to share my tips, information and thoughts to help you with whatever question you might have, ABOUT ME 

After I graduated from High School, I worked 5 years are Radio Shack and 3 years at Circuit City answering questions and helping customers with various electronics questions.