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Monitoring and the Law

Jorge Rodriguez

On Air but no longer On Line


           Several months ago, visitors to the Palm Beach County Florida Fire Rescue web site were greeted with the following message when they tried to link to that site’s live scanner audio. “Due to implementation of recently enacted HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue's live scanner site has been discontinued indefinitely.”

            Similarly around the nation, officials at the local government level are taking notice of their own municipalities' police and fire audio being rebroadcast (or webcast as it's now called) live on the Internet. Some cities are trying to put a stop to it.

            In the case of Palm Beach County, officials are concerned that their own participation in the rebroadcast of private, personal medical information could violate HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-191) was enacted as part of a broad Congressional attempt at healthcare reform. The Administrative Simplification aspect of HIPAA requires the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to develop standards and requirements for the maintenance and transmission of health information that identifies individual patients.

            This “simplification” is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the healthcare system by standardizing the exchange of electronic data for certain specified administrative and financial transactions. It is also to protect the security and confidentiality of electronic health information, and this is where it conflicts with live scanner audio online.

            It is in this maintaining of privacy due to HIPAA that Palm Beach County and others have become concerned. All healthcare organizations that maintain or transmit electronic health information must comply with HIPAA. As a health care provider, Palm Beach Fire Rescue found itself in the uncomfortable position of potentially revealing private, personal medical information unintentionally to anyone who was listening to their online live scanner audio. Since wrongful disclosure of individually identifiable health information could result in a fine of $50,000 and or imprisonment up to one year, the decision was made to suspend the live scanner audio feed.


Legal Grounds?

             Which laws may prohibit and which laws may protect the webcasting of live scanner audio online has been the topic of many postings on the several forums of user groups dedicated to the subject. Early in 2003, Steve Grasha, the 44 year old publisher of an online newspaper in Palm Springs, California, received a notification from the City of Palm Springs asking him to stop his webcasting of that city’s police and fire radio communications.

            At the beginning of 2003, Grasha had added a link to his online newspaper’s web site which allowed others to listen in on the live scanner audio of the Palm Springs Police and Fire. According to The Desert Sun, another Palm Springs newspaper, Grasha is a perpetual candidate for City Council and mayor.

            Grasha, who studied police science and graduated from Fullerton College and the North Orange County Police Reserve Academy in 1981, should know the law. He has previously worked on Capitol Hill as administrative assistant in the U.S. Congress. He’s been assistant to the Mayor of the City of Buena Park, California. And he’s worked as campaign coordinator for former entertainer-turned-Senator Sonny Bono. So why would someone like this ignore the pleas of a city official accusing him of violating the law?

            In an April message, James W. Runge,  Director of Information Technology for the City of Palm Springs wrote:

 Hello Mr. Grasha. This is to inform you that you are in violation of Title 47 Section 605 of the United States Code. This refers to the "Unauthorized publication or use of Communications". The penalties for  this section are fines up to $50,000 and or 2 years in prison. The FCC is aware of this violation but I have asked them to let me handle it first. I request the [sic] you remove our frequencies from your web site at once. Failure to do so will result in my turning this over to the FCC to handle. Your immediate cooperation in this matter is appreciated. Please let me know when you have removed our frequencies.

             Thus began an exchange between the City of Palm Springs and Mr. Grasha’s newspaper, The Palm Springs Village Voice in an article headed "Title 47 of the United States Code Section 605 versus the First Amendment." Mr. Grasha replied:

           I suggest you read the constitution of the United States of America. You might start with the first amendment.

          As a recognized member of the press, I am certain that the first will way [sic] heavily on any courts decision in this case!

 AMENDMENT I           
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Steve Grasha
The Palm Springs Village Voice

And the City responded:

I would suggest that you read title 47 chapter 5 subchapter VI section 605 of the United States Code. If it is not removed from the site in 24 hours it will be turned over to the FCC for enforcement. They are already aware of it and wanted to enforce it right away, but I asked them to wait until I could notify the owner of the site. If you continue to broadcast it action will be taken.

            In the end Mr. Grasha’s newspaper and the City of Palm Springs quietly moved on to other issues. A visit to The Palm Springs Village Voice web site today reveals no links that we could find to online live scanner audio from Palm Springs or anywhere else.


Plenty of Online Action

             As for online live scanner audio, it's alive and well in America for now. A recent visit to an online forum on the topic where users can share information counted almost ten thousand messages since the year 2000 when the group started. An online search will turn up dozens of police and fire dispatch channels available via online streaming.

            Attempts to contact representatives of Palm Beach County, the City of Palm Springs, and the Palm Springs Village Voice whose web site was last updated at the start of last fall were unsuccessful.

Disclaimer: Information in this column is provided for its news and educational content only. Nothing here should be construed as giving specific legal advice. Persons desiring legal advice about their specific situation should consult an attorney licensed in their jurisdiction.