Modern methods of communication offer many security benefits, such as end-to-end encryption, that are unfortunately lacking with commercial HAM radio systems. This lack of modern security features can leave your radio system vulnerable. We’ll break down some of the security concerns associated with using a HAM system, as well as some of the steps you can take to remain secure when broadcasting.
What is End-to-End Encryption?
End-to-end encryption is one of the most powerful tools in modern communications.
This category of protocols helps to ensure that once your message has been sent or phone call has been connected, only you and the recipient are able to access the information being transmitted.
While it is still possible to ‘tap’ a device, the methods used today are much different than that of the past. For example, modern methods rely much more heavily on software that logs users’ actions, instead of physical attacks (that intercept a wired signal).
These newer techniques of obtaining a person’s communication can be detected and prevented easily through the use of firewalls and anti-virus software, making most modern methods of communication both reliable and secure.
Unfortunately, most HAM radio systems lack this encryption capability leaving them extremely vulnerable to interception from third parties.
An Important Note on Encryption
It is important to note that although encryption is not permitted under the F.C.C. guidelines (F.C.C 97.113.4), it is possible to modify your radio to send secure and encrypted broadcasts.
This is most prevalent with agencies such as law-enforcement, where intercepting network traffic poses a direct threat to security.
Information is available online showing how to encrypt your network traffic, however, we do not recommend illegally broadcasting with encryption.
Not only does this breach your license and risk having it confiscated, but to people unable to decode your signal appears as broadcasting noise on a frequency, that can interfere with other people’s communications.
Instead of encryption, there are much more practical ways you can securely communicate over HAM radio frequencies that can be easily implemented into your personal communications plan.
Why Interception Should Concern You?
If you are broadcasting information with your HAM radio, interception is arguably the biggest threat you will face. This is largely because of the ease at which it can be carried out, by simply having an unknown third-party tune into your frequency and listen in to your conversations.
The risk of this is only made worse as most HAM radios come equipped with the functionality to scan over a range of different frequencies to detect and tune into any network traffic.
Scanning can be useful but makes it much more likely for someone to find your broadcast, even if they are not intentionally attempting to listen in on your communications.
Unfortunately, this risk is even greater with modern HAM usage as fewer people are broadcasting, ultimately making it easier to detect active signals.
We’ll look at how you can minimize having sensitive information compromised in this way, but it is important to note the scanning function on your radio is extremely valuable.
With less and less people interested in HAM radio today, scanning can be a great way to meet other enthusiasts and make new connections.
We still recommend you be considerate regarding the information you share over any unsecured network, but getting involved with other members of the HAM radio community can be a great way to source intelligence or even just make friends in the community.
How to Securely Communicate Over HAM?
We’ve discussed it briefly before, but a good communications plan is critical to maintaining security when broadcasting over an unsecured HAM frequency or even using another device you believe to be compromised.
One of the main ways a detailed communications plan can help to increase your digital security is by reducing your time broadcasting. By reducing the amount of time your signal is active, you not only reduce the likelihood of someone accidentally discovering your broadcast but also limit the amount of time someone can listen in on your conversations.
Using short and unpredictable communication windows of five to ten minutes when transmitting sensitive information limits the probability of someone being able to find your broadcast considerably and ultimately increases your security.
In a similar way to using an unpredictable schedule, you may also wish to consider alternating between a range of broadcast frequencies. This ensures that even in the unlikely event someone is able to accurately predict your broadcast schedule, they now have to go through the additional step of locating your broadcasting frequency.
Finally, while it is illegal to encrypt your broadcast to prevent interception, there are no laws about encrypting the messages you send. Two of the easiest ways to do this is through either code words for key locations or events, or actual cipher techniques such as a Caesar cipher.
Whatever cipher you choose, these techniques can substantially help limit sensitive information being shared explicitly over an unsecured network.
Encrypting your message can be difficult to do effectively if you are verbally sending messages, but it is possible to send HAM broadcasts through Morse code, which can be an effective way to send messages securely without directly encrypting your signal.
Whatever tactics you choose to secure your HAM radio communications, we recommend keeping written documentation of your plans that you can keep with your radio and share among your party or contacts.
Written documentation of your plan can be considered a risk to security, but with times, frequencies, and codewords, it is worth keeping an accurate record to ensure you can communicate with your party.
Secure Alternatives to HAM
While there are ways to improve the security of your HAM radio broadcasts through effective planning, if you are looking to guarantee security in times of emergency, a satellite phone may be for you.
As the name suggests, these rely on global satellites to communicate between devices instead of traditional cell towers, meaning they are unlikely to be affected by natural or man-made disasters while also allowing a secure broadcast connection anywhere around the world.
HAM radios do have many advantages over sat phones, such as being considerably cheaper to operate, but the distance and security offered by satellite phones cannot be beaten, even by modern smartphones.
If possible, we recommend trying to incorporate both into your communication plans but even used sat phones can be expensive, starting at around $200.
They are an extremely valuable addition to have, but it is possible to develop very effective communication plans without incorporating a sat phone.
HAM radios are an incredibly popular method of communicating when our modern tools fail, but their open network leaves many vulnerabilities to your operational security.
These security concerns can be overcome with sufficient planning, but for truly sensitive information, we recommend looking at alternative means of communication or applying some method of encoding to your data.
If a HAM radio sounds like it may be suitable for your communications needs, or you’re looking to learn more about how they work, be sure to check out our introduction into the world of HAM radios.