The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Secret Service have put out a request for information regarding technology to be used in Washington D.C. that is capable of detecting and pinpointing gunshots. This kind of technology is not new, as it’s been used by law enforcement since the 90’s.
About 70 cities across the U.S., mostly in high-crime locations, now use technology they call “gunshot detectors” that is able to pinpoint where a gun was fired within a 10-meter-or-so radius. A network of microphones placed on buildings and street lights is distributed throughout the city and connects to the control room, which could be thousands of miles away. One gunshot detector company called ShotSpotter is headquartered in Mountain View, California but has clients all the way to Massachusetts.
DHS is looking for technology with a greater than 95% gunshot detection rate. The challenge is being able to differentiate between gunshots, car backfires, firecrackers and helicopters. With the advancement in this technology over the past 20 years, false positives and false negatives have decreased. It can even detect whether of a gun was fired in a car (and if so, how fast the car was going), in a building or outside.
While law enforcement’s stated objectives in using gunshot detectors is to “crack down” on gun violence, it seems that it’s only allowed police to better their response time. But there are some other concerns as you’d expect from this kind of technology. Proponents claim that the microphones are only activated when a gun is fired. But a case a couple years ago in Massachusetts highlights the technology’s capability in listening to conversations. The New York Times reported:
“In at least one city, New Bedford, Mass., where sensors recorded a loud street argument that accompanied a fatal shooting in December, the system has raised questions about privacy and the reach of police surveillance, even in the service of reducing gun violence.”
In DHS’s request, it asks for these types of microphones to be distributed throughout the urban areas of D.C. spanning 100’s of acres. Their stated goal is to reduce gun crime, but couldn’t these microphones also serve as audio surveillance to listen in on people’s conversations?
They actually already do this in many cities with microphones and cameras installed in the street lights:
“Not only can the street lights, now being rolled out in Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh with Department of Energy backing, act as surveillance cameras, Minority Report-style advertising hubs, and Homeland Security alert systems, they are ‘also capable of recording conversations,’ according to a report by ABC 7. According to the companies behind the system, Intellistreets spying hubs that double as street lights are expected to ‘become commonplace’ not only on regular streets but also for ‘retail malls, sports venues, on college campuses, and in new construction.’”
Spying on our emails and phone conversations wasn’t enough. Soon, they’ll be monitoring our thoughts.