Police chief Ron Davis looks at gunshot notifications with engineer Stephan Noetzel just after midnight on Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009 in East Palo Alto, Calif. East Palo Alto was the first U.S. city completely wired with ShotSpotter, strategically placed acoustic sensors designed to help police track gunfire in high-crime areas. (Mathew Sumner/AP)
Police in Fall River, MA have a new surveillance tool, ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system. It consists of audio sensors installed on buildings and utility poles that are supposed to detect gunshots and alert police to their exact locations within minutes. ShotSpotter may or may not reduce crime, but it may also reduce privacy, by detecting and recording conversations that police have no right to hear.
Last year, in New Bedford, the system recorded a loud street argument that preceded a fatal shooting, for which two people were charged. Murder suspects are not the most sympathetic victims of arguably illegal, official eavesdropping, but sensors that detect their arguments can detect your arguments as well.
Is the privacy threat posed by ShotSpotter outweighed by its efficacy in combating gun violence? Maybe. Maybe not. This is a relatively new system, the costs and benefits of which are unclear. But it is clear that we the people should have a say in decisions to install hidden sensors and other surveillance instruments that operate without judicial review.
Hidden, warrantless surveillance systems should not be installed by administrative fiat. The decisions to install them should be put to local voters after public hearings and other opportunities for comment. Their uses should be subject to periodic review by independent judicial or quasi-judicial bodies designed to hold law enforcement accountable for any potential abuses.
Demanding public participation in decisions to put us under official microscopes and microphones isn’t radical. It’s merely democratic.
What is radical is imbuing law enforcement officials with virtually unilateral power to subject any or all of us to surveillance without our knowledge or permission, or meaningful judicial supervision. What’s alarming is the fact that this highly anti-democratic approach to warrantless domestic spying is becoming routine.
“Unwarranted domestic surveillance, whether in the form of aerial drones or other electronic surveillance, including cell phone tracking, has been implemented by police departments across the nation,” the Bill of Rights Defense Committee stresses. (I serve on the BORDC board.) “Our civil liberties are being dramatically eroded, if not eradicated, without our knowledge and consent or even the knowledge and consent of most of our elected representatives.”
Imbue law enforcement agencies with practically unbridled power to spy on us, and they will inevitably abuse it, through negligence, ignorance of the law, or, in the worst cases, intentionally.
Consider the illegal surveillance of peaceful protesters recently exposed by the Massachusetts ACLU and National Lawyers Guild lawsuit against the Boston Police Department and its fusion center, the Police Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). Documents and surveillance tapes obtained by the lawsuit reveal that,
“[P]olice officers assigned to the BRIC create and retain ‘intelligence reports’ detailing purely non-criminal political acts — such as handing out flyers and attending anti-war rallies — by well-known peace groups, including Veterans for Peace, Stop the Wars Coalition and CodePink. The videotapes, which include hours of footage of peaceful protests, confirm that police are often watching when members of the public speak their minds.”
Do you feel safer now, knowing that police are spying and collecting dossiers on lawful, peaceful protesters? Or do you feel less inclined to exercise your rights to engage in political protests? If you know or suspect that police can tune in remotely to your conversations in public streets, do you feel safer or more wary of what you say?
I’m not suggesting that ShotSpotter poses as great a threat to civil liberty as the BRIC and other fusions centers responsible for wholesale violations of the First and Fourth Amendment rights. I’m pointing out the folly of putting blind faith in law enforcement agencies and empowering them to decide when our rights should be sacrificed to their notions of security. We should be the deciders. We should determine where our fundamental rights end and our needs for security begin.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.