An important question asked by most walkie-talkie users is the level of privacy that their walkie-talkie promises. Unfortunately, most basic walkie-talkies do not provide high levels of privacy.
This is because they are meant for trivial purposes like basic communication for the general public.
However, advanced walkie-talkies, marketed as two-way radios or business two-way radios, often have stringent privacy requirements due to the purposes for which they are used.
These are the walkie-talkies generally used by government bodies like the police forces and the military, as well as for serious purposes in hospitals and businesses.
These activities might involve the exchange of private data due to which the walkie-talkies manufactured for these purposes usually have built-in measures to ensure privacy.
Apart from these measures, there are also other precautions that can be taken to strengthen privacy.
Are Walkie-Talkies Private?
As mentioned earlier, basic walkie-talkies do not provide much privacy.
The ones owned by the general public might be unlicensed if they function within the Family Radio Services (FRS), or might require a basic licensing from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if they work within the General Mobile Radio Services (GMRS).
These walkie-talkies can only work on radio channels that are shared between many users.
However, the modern walkie-talkies usually have privacy codes built into them and enabled so that there are no interferences in communication despite using a shared radio channel.
Business two-way radios, which are walkie-talkies meant for professional purposes, are the walkie-talkies that ensure a significant level of privacy.
This is because they are meant for business communication which needs to take place without interruptions and on a relatively private level.
Business two-way radios provide privacy mostly using two measures:
- Digital encryption of the data being communicated using the walkie-talkie handsets so that external parties cannot comprehend the data exchanged even if they gain access to the data.
- Allowing usage of channels on the business band
The business band, officially known as the Industrial/Business Pool Frequencies, refers to the set of radio channels who usage is designated for commercial and business purposes within the United States.
This band provides radio channels at the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and the Very High Frequency (VHF), ranging from 450 MHz to 470 MHz. Their usage is strictly controlled and regulated through licensing issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Channels at almost all radio frequencies require this licensing. The only exception to this is five channels which function at the same radio frequencies available under the Multi-Use Radio Services.
Apart from the features mentioned above, privacy of communication is also enabled by the use of Privacy Codes such as CTCSS and DCS so that there is security within the channel through which the users are communicating.
Many walkie-talkies also utilize data encryption to ensure prevention of data leakage.
These are the measures built into a walkie-talkie so that there is privacy of communication.
There are also few measures which individuals themselves can take to enhance the level of privacy that their communication enjoys even further:
- Using Morse Code is one way in which privacy of communication can be amplified when using walkie-talkies. Walkie-talkie users communicate using Morse Code by pressing the Push-to-Talk button (PTT button) periodically based on the message they want to convey.
- Using a headset is another way to ensure privacy, especially when the user is surrounded by other people. The headset allows the walkie-talkie user to hear the message being conveyed on their handset without letting others around them listen to it too.
Privacy of Radio Channel and Radio Frequency While Using Walkie-Talkies
Unfortunately, there are no completely private radio channels available for individual walkie-talkie users to utilize for their usage.
However, the radio frequencies at which the channels of the Business Band function have limited number of users. Moreover, the measures elaborated earlier, meaning privacy codes and encryption, avoid data leakages.
If a person is in dire need of a private channel for communication, it is preferable for them to communicate on channels with lower levels of frequency, or simply use radios which work at lower levels of frequency.
This is because lower levels of radio frequency see less traffic and thus it would almost amount to the same as having a private channel.
A business walkie-talkie that functions within the low parts of frequency ranges would be ideal for users who desire channels that are as private as possible.
Privacy Codes in Walkie-Talkies
Privacy codes in a walkie-talkie act as filters to ensure that conversations between users of the device are not leaked.
Walkie-talkie handsets establish communication through the transmission and receiving of radio signals.
Each device is fitted with an antenna to detect radio signals reaching it, which is then followed by the receiver component of the handset converting these signals into an understandable form so that the receiving user can comprehend them.
However, a major drawback with this basic functioning is that a walkie-talkie will be able to detect all radio signals within its range, which are at the appropriate frequency. This is where privacy codes come into play.
They are two main types of privacy codes- CTCSS and DCS. These help in ensuring the privacy between two communicating handsets by attaching a singular tone to outgoing messages.
This way, when the devices in range detect the radio signals transmitted by a handset on the same frequency as them, they are not able to receive and convert them unless they are functioning using the same privacy code as the transmitting device.
CTCSS stands for Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System. Sometimes referred to as tone squelch, it is one of the main privacy codes that are used in walkie-talkies to prevent leakage of the communication taking place between two handsets.
CTCSS works by transmitting a low level tone code simultaneously with any message being transmitted by the walkie-talkie.
These low level tones are called sub-audible tones, though sometimes the CTCSS mechanism of walkie-talkies manufactured by various companies are also referred to as the PL tone, the Channel Guard, the ToneLock, or the Quiet Channel.
The singular tone added by CTCSS usually has a frequency varying in the range of 67 Hz to 257 Hz.
Digital-Coded Squelch is quite similar to CTCSS, except that it makes use of a digital system for performing the function of maintaining privacy of communication, while CTCSS makes use of an analog system.
DCS occupies a larger bandwidth than CTCSS. It is also known as the Digital Private Line (DPL), the Digital Channel Guard (DCG), and Digital Tone Code Squelch (DTCS) in various models of walkie-talkies depending on the manufacturing company.
DCS adds a a sub-audible bitstream to outgoing messages in order to keep them undetectable from other handsets on the same frequency that are within range. This bitstream is at about 134.4 bps.
The Telecommunication Industry Association is responsible for regulating the DCS tones and so far there are 83 standard tones which are widely being used, though some walkie-talkies consist of non-standard tones too.
How to Use Privacy Codes on Walkie-Talkies?
The privacy code feature is usually enabled by default in walkie-talkies. However, most walkie-talkies also have a monitor button which allows the user to disable the CTCSS or DCS feature, depending on the walkie-talkie.
Handsets of the same model and of the same company are set to the same privacy code so they are able to establish communication.
However, to establish communication between handsets which are from different manufacturers or are of different models, privacy codes need to be disabled.
This will ensure that the devices can send and receive radio signals between each other as long as they are on the same frequency and within range.
Encryption in Walkie-Talkies
Encryption is the method of encoding understandable data into an incomprehensible form called ciphertext so that only authorized parties are able to access the decrypted version of the data and read it.
Encryption has become a major part of maintaining privacy in walkie-talkie communication.
There are various standards of digital encryption in cryptography. The two most secure encryption standards maintained in walkie-talkies are AES, or Advanced Encryption Standards, and DES, or Data Encryption Standards.
Apart from these two, data communicated via walkie-talkies is also maintained Simple Inversion Encryption, Hopping Inversion Encryption, and Rolling Code Inversion Encryption.
AES is the most advanced encryption standard currently being used to maintain privacy of walkie-talkie communication while exchanging sensitive data.
As a result, it is usually implemented in the walkie-talkies used by the police forces and the military. DES is its more simpler, but still extremely effective, version that is more widely used.
However, with the advancement of technology, companies are updating their walkie-talkies so that the devices are equipped with AES for data protection and privacy.
Can Civilians Use Encrypted Walkie-Talkies?
Unfortunately, encrypted walkie-talkies are not available for general purposes. The walkie-talkies which include the facility of encryption are made for professional and confidential purposes like use by businesses, the police force, and the military.
All of these require licensing without which it is not legal to operate them.
Thus, communication between different types of walkie-talkies is very much possible provided that the users know the finer details of how to bring this about.
The method of bypassing a walkie-talkies inbuilt privacy and protection measures is not too difficult for the owner of the device, enabling people to connect walkie-talkies of different brands, models, and types.