Just seconds after the trigger of a gun is squeezed, police officers in cities and towns across America are alerted thanks to the latest and greatest state-of-the-art technology. Up-to-the-moment accuracy isn’t always enough, though.
Programs like the ShotSpotter system were already in place in 44 US cities by 2009, and in recent years the company has only added more names to its list of customers that can learn about gun activity the second shots are fired. ShotSpotter’s developers describe it as “a gunfire alert and analysis solution” that uses specialized sensors and software to triangulate and pinpoint the precise location of each spent round within seconds, and dozens of law enforcement agencies across the United States have signed-on.
When it’s a matter of life or death, though, seconds can mean all the difference. That’s the reasoning, at least, for why a number of police departments across America are relying not just on systems like ShotSpotter but other, more Orwellian surveillance techniques to spy on citizens and predict problems before they even occur. The result, depending on who you ask, means a drop in crime. It also, however, could mean no one is safe from the ever watching eye of Big Brother.
Predictive policing programs that rely on algorithms and historic data to hypothesize the location and nature of future crimes are already being deployed New York City and other towns. Last month, in fact, Seattle, Washington Mayor Mike McGinn announced that two precincts there were starting to use predictive policing programs, promising “This technology will allow us to be proactive rather than reactive in responding to crime.”
“The Predictive Policing software is estimated to be twice as effective as a human data analyst working from the same information” Seattle Police Chief John Diaz told reporters. “It’s all part of our effort to build an agile, flexible and innovative police department that provides the best service possible to the public.”
But specialized software and sensors aren’t the only tools law enforcement officers are using to look into suspicious activity. In Los Angeles, one police department has at least one officer on the clock 24 hours a day patrolling social media sites for unusual activity.
Tweets, Facebook posts and even Instagram photos are all subject to surveillance, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Capt. Mike Parker admits to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Parker works with the eight-member Electronic Communications Triage, or eComm Unit that monitor public social media posts at all hours of the day in order to see if advertised parties and other get-togethers could benefit from a surprise visit by the police.
"They're watching social media and Internet comments that pertain to this geographic area, watching what would pertain to our agencies so we can prevent crime, help the public," Parker says. "And now they're going to be ramping up more and more with more sharing and interacting, especially during crises, whether it's local or regional."
Tribute writer Brenda Gazzar cites unspecified incidents in LA where teenagers attend parties, drink heavily and engage in illegal activity. “The partygoers usually get high, get a girl drugged up and then sexually assault her,” Gazzar quotes Capt. Parker. “Often gang members will show up, start fighting over a girl and end up shooting or stabbing someone.”
"We are absolutely and completely convinced that we are preventing wild assaults from our efforts with these illegal social media advertised parties,” Capt. Parker says, adding that the eComm unit has already thwarter around 250 “illegal parties” in Los Angeles County.
So-called “illegal parties” aren’t the only thing being searched for, though. The Tribune goes on to say that “unsanctioned protests” are also put under the magnifying glass by officers with the eComm unit who actively scour to Web to see what demonstrations are being planned and by whom.
Capt. Parker says the eComm unit doesn’t search for specific people, just certain activity, and stands by the system so far. With a number of other law enforcement agencies using state-of-the-art technologies to try and stop crime, though, it’s forcing more and more Americans to submit to a society where the police become privy to their personal activity, whether they like it or not.
Karen North, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Program on Online Communities, tells the Tribune that scouring social media sites for suspicious activity is “a smart move” on behalf of law enforcement, and that "All people should know that anything you put up on social media is public.”
“Even if you put it up on your private Facebook feed, you should still assume it's public" she tells the Tribune. When social media analysts have access to other implements, however, it raises all sorts of questions about what activity is fair game for the fuzz.
Evgeny Morozov, a Bulgarian writer and researcher, reports for the UK’s Observer this week that police agencies are starting to combine more and more of the data that enters eComm divisions and other units in agencies across the United States. In New York City, for example, Morozov acknowledges that the NYPD’s recently rolled-out Domain Awareness System doesn’t start and end with real-time gunshot alerts. That system, he says, “syncs the city's 3,000 closed-circuit camera feeds with arrest records, 911 calls, licence plate recognition technology and radiation detectors.”
“It can monitor a situation in real time and draw on a lot of data to understand what's happening. The leap from here to predicting what might happen is not so great,” he says.
The thousands of surveillance cameras on the island of Manhattan alone have existed for years, and the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have led relentless campaigns against the NYPD’s all-watching spy system and other constitutional-questionable behavior that brings every step in the City that Never Sleeps subject to police scrutiny. On the other side of the country, though, Seattle, Washington is soon becoming the surveillance capital of America. Earlier this year it was revealed that the major Pacific Northwest hub is in the midst of installing 30 surveillance cameras that will create a “wireless mesh network security system” on the city’s harbor that can be monitored by law enforcement agencies across the region. Coupled with other activity, though, Seattle’s eye-in-the-sky programs might be more serious than once suspected.
When Seattle recently signed onto the ShotSpotter system at a cost of $950,000 over two years for installation and operation, the city agreed to install 52 mobile gunshot locators that can collect intelligence up to 600 feet away using high-tech microphones and cameras.
“Having a private corporation control more than fifty audio/video surveillance stations in Seattle is likely to attract external interest,” security researcher Jacob Appelbaum tweeted over the weekend. A resident of Seattle, Appelbaum wrote on Twitter that he was looking for more information about the on-the-rise spy program being constructed in his city. “I find it rather depressing that surveillance/dataveillance programs are created and are used without so much as a public discussion,” he tweeted. “It would be interesting to learn how much money it costs to spin up the system and to FOIA the real data as input into the system.”
With public discourse on the subject sparse in many cities, though, obtaining, processing and sharing information with other concerned residents isn’t as commonplace as Appelbaum and others might want it to be. When many cities sign contracts with ShotSpotter, press write-ups are few and far between. In other locales, cameras that monitor car traffic are accepted as a necessity to curb red-light runners and other haphazard drivers. Rarely, however, is it discussed what other intelligence these cameras collect, and with whom it’s being shared with.
Predictive policing “may very well end up reducing crime to a certain degree,” Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman told National Public Radio in a 2011 interview. “The question is at what cost, at what price?”
According to a CBS report, a predictive policing program in an area of Los Angeles drove burglaries down by one-third in a matter of only five months. And when ShotSpotter was first installed in Saginaw, Michigan, crime soon dropped by 30 percent. As for the price, however, consider this: if each of the 52 ShotSpotter sensors in Seattle can collect data within a radius of 600 feet, then roughly 58,780,800 square feet of the city under surveillance — or over 2 square miles where privacy ceases to exist. That, of course, isn’t even taking into account the other surveillance systems in place, including the one on the city’s harbor.
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