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BE Informed No. 1.23

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There Are No Secrets in Ham Radio

 John B. Johnston W3BE

Q. We want to build a digital amateur television system. Our question concerns its applicability to Section 97.113(a)(4).  It says that no amateur station shall transmit messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning.  Does this mean it can’t transmit WEP? 

A. If its usage would result in non-compliance with our rules, then the answer is no it can’t. WEP stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy, a standard for Wi-Fi wireless network security that allows a group of devices on a local network to exchange encoded messages with each other while hiding the contents of the messages from easy viewing by outsiders, i.e., obscure their meaning. So, as such, its usage would be inconsistent with Section 97.113(a)(4).

Q. Our intent here is not to obscure. It is to ensure that only authorized amateur radio operators are using the wideband system. If this is interpreted by the FCC to mean that by using 802.11 encryption to only allow authorized access is not allowed, then there are a number of wideband systems that are in violation.  

   I will pursue the system with this "encryption" in place to ensure that we restrict access to Amateurs only. I assume that this will be OK. If not, then the FCC will serve to inhibit the advancement of our Amateur Radio technical advancements and many system planners/users will be honoring the "spirit" and intent of the law, not the letter of law. Could you clarify this for me?

A. Here’s where it stands: The privacy protection in Section 706 of the Communications Act does not apply to our amateur service. Section 97.113 is our rule and it means what it says: no amateur station shall transmit messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning.    

   On September 17, 2013, Petition for Rulemaking RM-11699 to Amend Part 97 of the Commission's Rules Governing the Amateur Radio Service to Provide for Encrypted Communications was dismissed. In doing so, our regulator noted that Section 97.113 is intended to help maintain the non-commercial character of the amateur radio service by prohibiting certain types of transmissions. The primary protection against exploitation of the amateur service and the enforcement mechanism in the amateur service is its self-regulating character. As noted by numerous commenters, the amateur community has a long tradition of self-regulation and a strong commitment to maintaining the unclouded distinction between the amateur service and other radio services. To ensure that the amateur service remains a non-commercial service and self-regulates, amateur stations must be capable of understanding the communications of other amateur stations. The content of messages that are encoded, however, are known only to those stations that have the code used to encode the message. In the case of encrypted messages, the message content is known only to stations having the encryption algorithm or key. 

   Thus, while the proposal could advance one purpose of the amateur radio service – value to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications – it would undermine other characteristics and purposes of the service. Therefore, we agree with the comments that say, in various ways, that amending the rules to allow encryption to obscure the meaning of messages transmitted during emergency services operations and related training exercises would not improve or enhance the operation of amateur service stations or otherwise be in the public interest. 

   It is, therefore, for you or your associates to plead for revisiting the judgment, based upon your perception of the extent to which technical advancement is being inhibited by complete openness in amateur service transmissions. You can include your argument that encryption would restrict spectrum access to hams better than does complete openness. Our amateur service community is relying upon you to report to our Maintenance Monitors any amateur service community system planners/users who are not complying with Section 97.113(a)(4)

Q. Are any secret communications in ham radio allowed?

A. Some types are authorized. Section 97.211(b) authorizes an amateur station designated as a space telecommand station to transmit special codes intended to obscure the meaning of telecommand messages to the station in space operation. Section 97.215 says signals transmitted by an amateur station to control a model craft are not considered codes or ciphers intended to obscure the meaning of the communication when the transmitter power does not exceed one watt. Section 97.217 says telemetry transmitted by an amateur station on or within 50 km of the Earth's surface is not considered to be codes or ciphers intended to obscure the meaning of communications.

Q. What do the international regulations have to say about secrecy?

A. RR No. 25.2A says that transmissions between amateur stations of different countries shall not be encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning, except for control signals exchanged between earth command stations and space stations in the amateur-satellite service.

Q. What was the petition all about?    

A. RM-11699 wanted encrypted intercommunications allowed while participating in emergency services operations or related training exercises that may involve information covered by HIPAA or other sensitive data, such as logistical information concerning medical supplies, personnel movement, other relief supplies or any other data designated by Federal authorities managing relief or training efforts. It claims the restriction on secrecy has impacted the relationship of amateur radio volunteers and served agencies and significantly limited the effectiveness of amateurs in supporting emergency communications.

Q. What is HIPAA?

A. It is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The Office for Civil Rights enforces the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information; the HIPAA Security Rule, which sets national standards for the security of electronic protected health information; the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule, which requires covered entities and business associates to provide notification following a breach of unsecured protected health information; and the confidentiality provisions of the Patient Safety Rule, which protect identifiable information being used to analyze patient safety events and improve patient safety. 

Q. What was requested?

A. It suggested modifying Part 97 to capture the intent of rules apparently in place in Australia. Those rules reportedly allow encrypted intercommunications when an amateur station is participating in emergency services operations or related training exercises.

Q. One could argue the intent of the WEP being used. When the intent by the user is to limit access only to authorized stations, obscuration is an unintended side effect. I would argue that the rule is only enforceable when the FCC can prove that the intent is to obscure the meaning of the information be transmitted.   

A. But obscuration would be present. The content of messages would be known only to those recipients that have the code used to encode the message. Only they would know whether or not the messages were truly of the type authorized for our amateur radio service, and not otherwise prohibited. The protection afforded by our traditional openness would not be present. The onus, therefore, would have to be on the Section 97.103 station licensee of the transmitting station to prove to our amateur service community that the obscuration was not intentional and the messages being transmitted were legitimate.

  FYI: In  RM-11699, our Maintenance Monitors argue that there is no basis for assuming that encryption of transmissions in order to obscure their meaning is necessary in order to continue and enhance the utility of amateur radio emergency and disaster relief communications. See Para. 5 therein.    

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September 4, 2015

Supersedes all prior editions