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ARRL Urges Denial of Petition to Permit Encryption of Some Emergency Communications

07/08/2013

The ARRL is calling on the FCC to deny a Petition for Rule Making (RM-11699) seeking to permit the encryption of certain amateur communications during emergency operations or related training exercises. Don Rolph, AB1PH, of E Walpole, Massachusetts, petitioned the Commission in March to suggest an additional exception to §97.113, which currently prohibits “messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning.”

“While Mr Rolph has concisely stated his argument, it is ARRL’s considered view that there is no factual or legal basis for the assumption that encryption of transmissions…is necessary in order to continue and enhance the utility of Amateur Radio emergency and disaster relief communications,” the League said in its comments, filed today with the FCC. The ARRL also turned away Rolph’s assertion that the current prohibition in §97.113 “has impacted the relationship of Amateur Radio volunteers and served agencies and significantly limited the effectiveness of amateurs in supporting emergency communications.” The League said it’s unaware of any evidence that served agencies have been reluctant to utilize Amateur Radio as part of their emergency or disaster relief communications plans because of the encryption restrictions in Part 97. The Amateur Service rule is based on a similar prohibition in international telecommunication law, the ARRL noted.

The League characterized as “erroneous” and “unfounded” Rolph’s assumption that encryption of certain information may be required under the provisions of HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “This mistaken assumption leads to the conclusion that the inability of Amateur Radio operators to encrypt the content of their transmissions in order to obscure the meaning of the transmissions renders Amateur Radio less (and decreasingly) useful to served agencies than it would be if encryption of those transmissions was permitted,” the ARRL said. The League also said it was unaware of any instance in which state statutes have been cited by any served agency or group as a reason not to employ Amateur Radio for emergency communication.

Radio amateurs, the ARRL countered, are not “covered entities” under HIPAA, which applies only to health care providers, health plans and health care clearinghouses. And, the League added, there is no expectation of privacy in Amateur Radio communications.

The ARRL said it’s not possible to determine the validity of the claim “that health care agencies subject to HIPAA are or might be unwilling or reluctant to utilize Amateur Radio in emergency communications and disaster relief planning” because of any lack of privacy inherent in Amateur Radio. “Permitting encryption might remedy the concern as a practical matter, if the concern exists,” the League continued, but “the complete dearth of even anecdotal evidence of the existence of that concern” makes it impossible to justify the proposed rule change on that basis.

“It is extremely important to insure that Amateur Radio remains useful to served disaster relief and emergency communications agencies, which include health care facilities,” the League stressed. “It is just as important to insure that regulatory impediments to that volunteer work be minimized to the extent consistent with the nature of the Amateur Radio Service.” Amateur Radio’s utility to served agencies in supporting emergency communication, the ARRL continued, “is high indeed, and is at the present time unfettered by the inability to encrypt transmissions.”

However, the ARRL said that should it become necessary in the future for radio amateurs to protect the privacy of individuals whose medical data may be transmitted by Amateur Radio during or after an emergency or disaster, “the Commission may be asked to revisit this matter.”

“It is urgent that Amateur Radio continue to be an essential component of disaster and emergency communications planning,” and that served agencies, including medical facilities, perceive the utility of Amateur Radio as unhindered by regulations that prohibit encryption, the League emphasized.

More than 200 comments were filed on RM-11699, most of them tending to support the ARRL’s arguments.

 



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