They might not be hiding listening devices in our cheese, as overly paranoid Rob Lowe frets in the famous TV commercial. But they are hiding microphones in our cities. Perhaps I’m being Overly Paranoid Bob Sullivan, but I’m unconvinced we’ve had a decent public conversation about this.
On St. Patrick’s Day last week, New York became the last American city to announce it had activated a series of microphones with the stated purpose of recognizing gunshots and reporting them quickly to police. In rough neighborhoods with out-of-control gun violence, it’s hard to argue against any innovation that might bring law to lawless areas. I’m not going to try. But I am going to raise questions, and you should, too. ShotSpotter is another in a long line of technologies invented for military applications that any now being deployed on the Home Front — perhaps you didn’t even realize there was a home front? You almost certainly don’t realize that a massive network of cameras around the country logs your license plate as you drive in and out of America’s cities, sponsored by federal grants and gobbled up by gadget-hungry local cops. ShotSpotter is the next technology that law enforcement is deploying without hearty, national debate.
The ShotSpotter system has done some good things in places like Oakland, Calif., and Camden, N.J. It’s even helped convict some bad guys. In a celebrated case from California, one shooting victim was actually heard on a SpotShotter, moments after being fatally wounded but before he died, naming his murderer. The case begs the question: will these microphones hear your idle chatter, too?
“Today, we’re rolling out cutting edge technology to make the city safer, to make our neighborhoods safer, to keep our officer’s safer,” said NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio at any event celebrating launch of a ShotSpotter trial in Brooklyn and the Bronx. This new gunshot detection system is going to do a world of good in terms of going after the bad guys in this town, going after people who fire their weapons and who we need to identify immediately. The ShotSpotter system is going to allow us to decrease response time getting to the site of a shooting, and it’s going to allow us to deeply enhance the safety of our communities and the communication between police and community because when something happens, we’re going to know about it instantly.”
You might be in the nothing-to-hide crowd that finds nothing but benefit from such technologies. So long as you aren’t committing a crime, a network of microphones around your city won’t bother you. But recall from high school civics class the notion of “Chilling Effect.” Whoever you are, you behave differently when you know you are being watched. Civil liberties aren’t just about ensuring due process; they are about making people feel free, so they act free.
The folks at ShotSpotter have said repeatedly that the system has minimal ability to record conversation. Microphones only pick up voices when they are spoken at shouting volumes within a few feet, and even then, only a few seconds before and after a gunshot. That’s certainly comforting. I’d prefer clear pledges, along with regular auditing, that shows conversation data is deleted as soon as possible, immediately after it is deemed unhelpful to the hot pursuit of a crime. I’d like to think any reasonable judge wouldn’t admit out-of-context audio recordings made by the devices, particularly when you consider the difficulty of establishing chain of custody for the audio. It wouldn’t be hard to hack or alter, I’m sure.
But the concern I often express about use of these privacy-invasive technology has much more to do with an honest cost-benefit analysis. I don’t mind giving up a little privacy for a lot of safety, but it usually works the other way around. The technology is not the panacea it’s promised to be, meaning our civil liberties have been compromised for little or no benefit.
ShotSpotter has a spotty record. A WNYC investigation of Newark’s system found police there complained about false alarms — backfiring trucks could set off the system. And the mere report of a gunshot is rarely enough to result in an arrest. Shooters rarely stand still after discharging their weapons. WNYC found that false alarm rates were 75 percent. After 3,632 audio incidents, 17 shooters were arrested on scene. That’s not an abysmal record, but it should be enough to make folks reconsider the cost-benefit analysis.
Here’s hoping New York City officials cut through the hyperbole and make a sensible, risk-based decision.