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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Comments
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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