Amateur Radio Encrypted Message Debate Heats Up
Monday, January 07, 2019 | Comments

The debate around whether the FCC should address violations of the use of private messaging in amateur radio has heated up following an ex parte filing from wireless expert Theodore Rappaport last year.

The filing, supported by a late December filing from Ron Kolarik, said national security is at risk by allowing encrypted messages in the ham bands.

MissionCritical Communications has received numerous online comments to the story. Rappaport’s critics say the FCC can decode any mode presently used today on ham radio, including Pactor 1, 2, 3, 4. Rappaport disagreed.

In an email to MissionCritical Communications, Rappaport said only Pactor 1, the original specified, documented open source Pactor that stemmed from Amtor, is decodable by others. The proprietary SCS Pactor versions 2,3,4 cannot be intercepted for meaning.

“Others in government and ham radio have admitted to me privately that the Winlink transmissions supported and developed by ARSFI (Amateur Radio Safety Foundation Inc.) are cyphered and not readable in ARQ mode over the shortwave bands,” Rappaport said. “This is a desired feature for commercial Sailmail and Airmail systems (also run by ARSFI/Winlink associates/donors/partners) but illegal for amateur radio, since the FCC only allows such unspecified codes above 50 MHz. The Winlink/ARSFI user community is clearly double dipping by running a nonprofit boating email security system on marine frequencies, while illegally using the amateur radio bands for its constituency of users.”

Rappaport provided additional detail in his FCC filing, on which he copied several U.S. lawmakers. The FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) 16-239 attempts to remove a limit on the baud rate of high-frequency (HF) shortwave transmissions. He said the FCC should first address ongoing rule violations to proper usage of the amateur radio service — specifically, the use of obscured, private messaging, which is forbidden in Part 97 rules and creates national security concerns, as well as other violations.

AFRSI Dec. 5 filed a response with the FCC, noting the group is in favor of the NPRM plus an ARRL proposal for a 2.8-kilohertz bandwidth limitation. AFRSI said that for most Winlink stakeholders, the NPRM will allow Pactor 4 in the United States. “New, faster and better protocols will be close behind,” the group said.

AFRSI said “Rappaport is spreading unrelated emotional fire …” and encouraged stakeholders to educate themselves and file comments with the FCC. The AFRSI response is here.

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On 10/6/21, Chuck Crosthwait said:
Jeff Cherry
Day late here but Jeff s comment is inaccurate. When dealing with PHI Protected Health Information as an entity who is responsible for and therefore governed by HIPAA you MUST transmit in a non-reversible encrypted state and the encryption key should be specific to the entity sending receiving. This specifies non-publicly shared keypairs. Yes it s a pain but that s the way it is and should be. While amateurs are not governed by HIPAA though it s a good idea to respect it entities such as hospitals and the Red Cross specifically mentioned are. That s also why they have their own bands dedicated for their use so they shouldn t be on amateur bands with any tech when functioning in the capacity of inter- or intra-agency communications. All that verbal barf means Kolarik is at least partially correct IMO amateur bands should be free of non-reversible encryption. Personally I d prefer they were free of encryption period. If you want to operate a secure radio frequency you should rent it. It s like setting up a locked building in a public park as a private entity. Es no bueno.

On 5/31/19, Serfozo said:
Just because it is not legal, it will not stop any ill-intentioned individuals from sending encrypted transmissions over HAM radio frequencies. Criminals do not care about laws.

On 1/24/19, Dan White said:
This is NOT about Dr. Rappaport. This is about a technology Pactor 3, 4 and ARQ Mode that CANNOT, regardless of false claims, be decoded or displayed by third parties or official observers in DIRECT VIOLATION of FCC Part 97 Rules. In today's world of technology advancements, such as FT-8 which uses only 50 Hz of spectrum, Pactor 4 is also an aggressive spectrum hog. It is not technology advancement; it is the equivalent of someone working 10 years to invent high-definition black and white television. Highly inefficient with spectrum and encrypted. Both bad. And all the HIPPA concerns are moot because radio operators are not even covered by HIPPA even though they wanna be. This system has many documented cases of being used for commercial purposes by cheap yachters that are merely trying to bypass available maritime commercial email service, all at the expense of narrowband amateur modes. These folks are totally inconsiderate of the law or others. Pactor 4 is designed to overcome narrowband signals inside its spectral footprint. Not a good neighbor. It does not even belong in the neighborhood. Read Part 97 for yourself.

On 1/23/19, Charles said:
Rappaport is holding a digital mode hostage for the alleged sins of Winlink. As Winlink uses several other ARQ modes that bear the same issue, singling out Pactor 2, 3 and 4 merely reveals bias against a superior technology. Much of the non-U.S. amateur world uses Pactor 4. The U.S. should join them.

As for Winlink, this is a completely separate question and should be addressed independently.

On 1/23/19, Ron Kolarik said:
Taking these points one at a time.
1. Encryption is not allowed on any amateur band for any reason.
2. Amateur radio operators supporting disaster communications are not covered by HIPPA rules. If the agencies amateurs support want something sent encrypted like a credit card number, they need to find another way.
3. Encryption with a common disclosed key that is published defeats the purpose of encryption if it's readily available. It doesn't really matter how far encryption supporters stretch it, it's not allowed.
4. Intruders show up in the amateur bands daily and some are actually encrypted and are easily recognized as such. The whole premise of the amateur service is openness. The FCC agrees that all amateur operators need to understand all other amateurs to guard against commercialization or bad actors in order to self-police the service. See the same link in point 2.
5. No mode is being held hostage. It's all about communications transparency in the amateur service. If a protocol — any protocol — can't be readily observed by third parties the self-policing mandate of the service can't be met.
I keep hearing the rest of the world has Pactor 4 with no definition of "rest of the world" or the amount of actual usage. Very little Pactor of any version is heard outside of Winlink worldwide so it's virtually impossible to separate the mode from the network. Winlink's past poor behavior and practices by users sysops and the sysadmin can't be ignored in the equation either. Just because the rest of the world has it is no reason to reward a very small segment of the amateur population with yet another mode that's a huge interference problem and can't be self-policed. I don't trust Winlink or the ARRL to do it, and the FCC pretty much says it's every amateur's responsibility to police ourselves.
6. Pactor can hardly be considered a superior technology. One connection at a time to a server is ancient technology. Packet had multiple simultaneous connections to a single server available decades ago.

On 1/9/19, William Collinson said:
The national security concerns argument is moot. Aside from a wide variety of secure channels that bad actors can choose from for communications, they are also unlikely to care about adherence to FCC rules around the amateur bands. The response time of the FCC to address a complaint leaves a huge window for operations with little or no repercussions. The rule is rendered quite obsolete by the widely available cheap technology for encryption of messaging across both wired and wireless communications channels.

On 1/9/19, Jeff Cherry said:
When you are passing traffic related to Red Cross shelter operations, third-party information for doctors regarding patients and credit card information for urgent purchases, you should encrypt with a common disclosed key that is published.


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