Sunday, November 19, 2017

Book Review: Down-Grid Communications by Sparks31

Book: Down-Grid Communications by Sparks31 (2016); soft-cover; 80 pages (ISBN 978-1-365-06318-3).

Publisher: TAC Enterprises LLC
                  P.O. Box 1351
                  Riverton, WY 82501
                  Tel: 720-778-1744

      I purchased this book through an Amazon affiliate, and am not sure of its overall availability, which is why I have included the ISBN number and publisher's information. I don't have my receipt handy, but paid just under $30 for the book. Normally I would not have paid that much for such a short book, but Sparks31's reputation proceeds him, and so I figured that it would be well worth the money. I would also note that, although I don't which edition it is, from comments that the author makes, this is at least a second or third edition of this book.

       I will point out right now that I don't have the technical knowledge to judge the technical details in the book. For instance, the author makes recommendations as to certain equipment, details the performance and capabilities of certain equipment and radio frequencies, and provides what appears to be significant information about different radio frequencies and for what they are used. I lack the knowledge to offer an opinion as to any of this. However, I will try and describe the book and my thoughts approaching it as a complete novice.

       One of things I watch for in a book is the intended audience and intended purpose of the book. The author covers two basic topics in the book: basic electronic or signals intelligence (SIGINT) and communications for preppers and 3%'rs. In particular, the book is aimed at those that are novices or have limited experience at these topics. And by that, I don't mean that the book won't have value for experienced HAMs or radio operators, because I suspect it covers information that even experienced HAMs may not have fully explored (at least in the context of a prepper or 3%'r). Also, this book is intended as a guide: that is, the book is not intended to impart all or most of the information you will need, but to point you to sources where you can learn the information, including recommending specific books and how you might best acquire them at bargain prices.


        That covered, let me address the contents. As noted, the two basic topics covered in the book are SIGINT and communications. Referencing the table of contents, the primary sections of the book are as follows:

  • Beginning considerations.
  • Education and building your skill set.
  • Information versus intelligence.
  • Area/Hazard analysis.
  • Communications monitoring equipment.
  • Basic communications monitoring techniques.
  • Signal analysis.
  • Common portable radio frequencies.
  • Communications monitoring notes.
  • Radio services available or use and introductory thoughts on radio communications.
  • Citizens' Band (CB)
  • Family Radio Service (FRS)
  • Multi-use Radio Service (MURS).
  • 33-cm (902 - 928 MHz).
  • Amateur (Ham) radio.
  • Recommendations as to equipment.
  • Telephone techniques.
  • One-time pad generation.

         The author opines in this book (as well as his website) that monitoring other's communications will be more valuable for the prepper or 3%'r than having elaborate radio communication abilities of your own. In fact, he spends a little over half of his book on this topic. The reason for this is intelligence: by monitoring police bands and those used by other first responders, utility companies, and so on, you can get a better idea of what is going on around you. Not only can this provide immediately actionable intelligence (i.e., dispatch calls as to particular incidents, such as a disaster, emergency, or utility problems), but over time you can gather information as to patterns. For instance, if police are routinely dispatched to certain neighborhoods responding to burglaries, robberies, or other crimes, you can get an idea where the high crime areas are located, and possibly whether there is a shift in the location of crimes.

       Although police are increasingly moving to encrypted systems, this does not render monitoring their communications meaningless: the volume or location of communications can be valuable. The same applies to unknown actors who may be using encrypted communications or codes. For instance, if there is a sudden uptick in radio communications in your neighborhood or locale, it may be useful to investigate why. And, as the author notes, even if you cannot understand the police communications, communications from ancillary agencies or entities (e.g., fire, ambulance, and utilities) may provide information as to a particular incident. For instance, a chemical spill or fire will probably at least result in a fire department responding, whose communications will probably be "in the clear."

       The author provides guidance in this area not only as to describing basics such as the difference between information and intelligence, but sets out a list of questions you can use to interpret information; and, very helpfully, lists and describes equipment (including recommendations) for monitoring radio communications, and discusses and lists common frequencies.

       Turning to communications, the author describes the different communication frequencies available to the public, for what purposes and the basic advantages or limitations of each. Obviously, you need to be licensed for certain frequencies (such as HAM) or for broadcasting at certain levels of power. Certain systems don't require licensing for basic broadcasting: Citizens' Band (CB) and Family Radio Service (FRS). The MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) bands--often included in walkie talkies--technically require a license, but is probably ignored in most cases. And then there are the HAM radio amateur frequencies which will require different licenses depending primarily on the power and range of broadcasting. Sparks31 discusses each of these bands/frequencies, including pros and cons, as well as reviews or recommendations as to the transceivers used as to each and additional equipment that might be useful.  If you are going to try for a HAM license, the author recommends learning Morse code (even though it apparently is no longer required for a HAM license) and getting a key for sending Morse code.

       The author then briefly discusses telephones: specifically, different field telephones, the advantages and disadvantages to field telephones versus radio, and where to locate phones or wire to run between the phones.

        Finally, the author discusses the creation and use of one-time key pads. These are codes that are randomly generated and, as the name implies, only used one time in order to foil decoding.


       Robert Heinlein is often quoted for his statement that "specialization is for insects." He wrote:
 A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Perhaps so, but reading this book leaves with a similar feeling as when I read books on disaster medicine: we are well past the time of the Renaissance Man, able to have some useful knowledge in all topics. Although most of us can learn first aid, it would be unreasonable to presume that we could  accumulate the knowledge and skill of a nurse, let alone a doctor. This applies to other fields, including communications. Even in this short volume there is a significant amount of information about radio communications that would require a significant investment in time, money and resources to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to effectively use. Yes, everyone can learn to operate a simple radio, or monitor a scanner, but it will take increasing effort and specialization the further you go, especially if in addition to using the equipment, you also want to be able to service or repair the equipment. Fortunately, the author recognizes this, and has recommendations based not only on what he thinks is good equipment, but recommendations based on your commitment to learning what you need to know, as well as your available budget. Thus, this is a good book for evaluating how far you want to go down the rabbit-hole, so to speak, of communications. If you only want or need basic capabilities, the author tells you what you need to know (and more). If you want to go all the way, get your HAM license, and build a comprehensive radio set up, the author tells you how to do that (or where to go to get the additional information you will need).

        The author's information also is useful in determining what others can and can't do in regards to your communications. For instance, he warns that the "privacy" codes available on certain mobile radios are there only to block you from hearing unwanted communications, but does nothing to secure your communications from being intercepted or understood by anyone else. Similarly, field telephones are susceptible to being tapped (not just a physical tap, but induction: whether by overlaying the wire with another wire, or, if the wire is buried, using more remote methods).

        While I understand the author's stance on monitoring radio communications and engaging in basic SIGINT, I do question the "average" prepper's ability to devote sufficient time to obtain useful information within a reasonable period of time. Even if you are passively monitoring a scanner, it takes time to not only listen to what comes in over the scanner but to also compile and analyze the data. But you are not going to be able to do it 24/7. Even when you are awake, work and other activities may severely limit your ability to monitor communications in your area. That is, I question how much intelligence you can develop if you can only devote a few hours a week to monitoring your scanner. I raise this as a question, though, because I don't know. Perhaps even a limited time at the scanner will give you enough information.

       Of course, the effort you put into SIGINT (or communications security) will also depend on the perceived threat. For instance, Anonymous Conservative recently commented on a Sean Hannity segment where Hannity indicated that he and all his show's guests (Circa News’ Sara Carter, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow and John Solomon of The Hill) were being illegally surveilled. Anonymous Conservative adds:
        Also, the most prominent investigative reporter today, Sharyl Attkisson, had classified documents installed on her computer in a hidden file so she could be summarily imprisoned (and had she not discovered them she would have been, and none of us would have thought twice about her getting classified docs illegally from some source in the course of her work). 
        And the most prominent member of the Democratic National Committee [Donna Brazille] believed that if she didn’t outfit her house with cameras and uninterruptible power supplies her food could be spiked and she might be killed – and she never went to the FBI or any Law Enforcement entity for assistance, because she believed they could not or would not help her.
(There is a lot more in that article, and I recommend that you read the whole thing). If you think you are under surveillance, you will want to put more time and effort into SIGINT and communications security.

        On the latter topic, two of the most important items from the book are the instructions for creating and using a one-time pad, and the discussion of the 33-cm transceivers. Specifically, as to the 33-cm transceivers, Sparks31 notes:
Motorola makes the "DTR" series of handheld radios that operate in the 902 Band using Frequency Hopping Spread-Spectrum (FHSS) communications. Instead of a radio channel being a single frequency as it is on FRS, GMRS, MURS, or CB a spread-spectrum channel is actually a group of frequencies that the radio hops through in a predetermined algorithm. This means that police scanners, including the near-field Signal Stalker type units, will not be able to intercept the signal from these units. There are three models available. ... The two you should look for are the DTR-550 and DTR-650. You should also look for the optional keypads that connect to the radios for extended text messaging capability. There are a solid, mil-spec, easy to use radio that requires no license.
This won't, by itself, protect you from serious attempts to intercept your device (I know someone whose only job with one defense contractor was working out the algorithms used by the Russians for frequency hopping so that the U.S. military could simply listen in by making the exact same hops). But it should be effective, as noted, against casual interception.

       As a final note, there are programs available that allow computers to generate one-time key pads. There are couple concerns with using these programs. First, the effectiveness of one-time key pads is that the numbers used be random. Those of you in the computer science field will be aware that computers cannot truly generate random numbers, although there are some very good algorithms that do a pretty good job. Sparks31 recommends using dice for this purpose--particularly, unopened, unused casino dice. (He provides a system for translating the 1-6 results into a base-10 number). Second, using a program leaves a record on your computer; and let's face it, if you have a genuine need to resort to one-time pads, your computer may very well have surveillance software on it. Sparks31 recommends buying an old typewriter (not word processor), typing out a bunch of sheets of codes, and then selling or getting rid of the typewriter and destroying (burning) the ribbon. I would also caution about photocopying the sheets: not only is there the possibility of modern digital photocopiers storing a record of what is copied, or introducing a code or serial number, but the scratches on the glass of a photocopier are as unique as fingerprints, and used the same way.


       Great introduction to communications for the 3%'r and prepper, even if you only will invest in a basic communication system for your family or friends.

Update: Corrected typo.

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