Privacy Advocates Worry New Police Mics Will Record Much More Than Gunshots

Milwaukee police were shocked to learn that the vast majority of gunshots are never reported. But what else can authorities learn through new technology?
Gunshot detection technology allows police to arrive at the scene more quickly. (Photo: Mitch Kezar/Getty Images)
Mar 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The community policing adage asks citizens to say something if they see something, but now there’s controversial law enforcement technology that promises if it hears anything, it may be able to reveal everything about gun violence and criminal activity.

Despite criticism from privacy advocates, the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system’s ability to reduce police response time in neighborhoods that struggle with gun violence makes it crucial, Milwaukee Police Department Captain David Salazar told TakePart.

His department has used ShotSpotter since 2011, and it discovered an alarming fact: Only 14 percent of gunshots detected by ShotSpotter resulted in a 911 call.

As captain of the department’s Intelligence Fusion Center—which manages predictive intelligence, gun intelligence, and forensic labs—Salazar believes it may help restore faith in the efficacy of the criminal justice system when police are on the scene, 911 call or not.

“If a marked car is coming down the street and we are out there knocking on doors to make sure people are all right within minutes of an incident, we’re going to get some of that community back,” he said.

The microphones used by ShotSpotter are activated by loud noises to record gunshots, and the company’s staff in Mountain View, California, then instantaneously listens to recordings to confirm the gunfire and triangulate a location so that police departments can quickly respond to the scene. It’s used by police departments all over the country, including in Georgia, Minnesota, and Connecticut. But as the technology is formally introduced in two boroughs of New York City this week, unanswered questions about data recorded by the system are raising privacy concerns from advocates, legal experts, and the communities where the microphones are installed.

“It’s a troubling message to send to these communities who already have enhanced surveillance experiences and too much law enforcement contact,” said Susannah Karlsson, special litigation counsel for Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender organization for people who can’t afford private counsel. “This takes that tradition of hyper-surveillance to the next level.”

In New York City, as in other places, many gunshots go unreported, making this technology more desirable to police who may not be notified by the community when gunfire occurs.

At a Monday press conference introducing ShotSpotter with NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized that the system “is going to do a world of good in terms of going after the bad guys in this town.”

Police departments around the country seem to agree with de Blasio’s prediction—and they say privacy isn’t a concern.

According to Salazar, the audio recordings are limited to two seconds prior to the detected shot and four seconds after, and the sensors used by the system are placed roughly 30 feet above street level. Another officer who oversees the Milwaukee police’s ShotSpotter program said recordings not requested by the department within 72 hours are destroyed by the company. If the department does obtain a recording, it can be kept as evidence forever, depending on the offense. Salazar noted the technology has improved since 2011, with fewer sounds misinterpreted as gunfire.

ShotSpotter’s primary objective is to record gunfire, not conversations, according to emails from the company to TakePart.

“A private conversation spoken in a normal voice is simply not intelligible to a human, to a mobile phone, or to ShotSpotter sensors,” said Theresa Marcroft, senior vice president of marketing. “This is an intentional engineering and design choice made to ensure that ShotSpotter sensors cannot be used to monitor private conversations.”

Yet, a 2012 incident in New Bedford, Massachusetts, proves the technology is at least capable of detecting speech that could later be used by prosecutors. Two men were indicted after part of an argument was picked up and recorded by the ShotSpotter system. The system started recording after shots were fired and a bystander was killed.

Civil liberties advocates say they’re not convinced there are enough protections for regular private conversations.

“We are always concerned about secondary uses of technology that is sold to us for some unobjectionable purpose and is then used for other purposes,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “If [ShotSpotter] is recording voices out in public, it needs to be shut down.”

To ensure it is used only for its intended purpose, Karlsson said the system—which will cost New York City $1.5 million per year—must be governed by clear rules that safeguard privacy and permit oversight. There’s already legislation before the city council to that end.

“Transparency is key in terms of how and when this system operates, and how the information gleaned from the [audio sensors] can be appropriately vetted,” said Karlsson. “We’re talking about people’s lives. This isn’t a joke.”