What is ‘ShotSpotter’? Controversial gunshot detector technology approved by Toronto police

Click to play video: 'John Tory says all levels of government committed to tackling gun violence in Toronto'
John Tory says all levels of government committed to tackling gun violence in Toronto
WATCH ABOVE: VIDEO: John Tory says all levels of government committed to tackling gun violence in Toronto – Jul 18, 2018

In an effort to curb gun violence, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) has requested the city fund a motion to double the amount of public CCTV cameras and introduce a controversial audio recording technology that provides police with real-time shooting locations.

The TPSB agreed to move forward the motion, originally brought forward by Mayor John Tory, who said the measures were discussed at a special meeting between senior city and police staff earlier in July.

The new audio recording technology is called “ShotSpotter,” and is a system that is already in use by more than 90 cities in the U.S, including Louisville, Cincinnati and Chicago, Tory said. The system uses microphones to detect and locate gunfire, and automatically informs police.

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“It is technology that the chief believes will help the police to much more quickly detect shooting occurrences when a firearm is discharged, and the precise location at which those firearms have been discharged so that officers can get to those places much faster,” Tory told reporters at a press conference Thursday morning.

According to its privacy policy, ShotSpotter said its devices only record and provide police with audio beginning two seconds before a gunshot has been fired and ending four seconds after.

On its website, it said, “Our outdoor acoustic sensors identify and time-stamp impulsive noises; the system triangulates the location of the sound source to within 25 meters and runs features of the sound through machine classification; our Incident Review Center (IRC) human experts confirm the machine classification and publish an alert – typically within 30-45 seconds of the trigger pull,” the company writes.

“Our indoor sensors listen for the impulsive sound of gunfire and look for the infrared flash from the barrel; they are designed to automatically alert security personnel within ten seconds, without any human assessment.” There is then a “push notification” sent to law enforcement and first responders which tells them the location of gunfire.

READ MORE: Toronto police enact overnight shift changes for officers to tackle rise in gun violence

The effectiveness of the technology, however, is up for debate. According to a 2016 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, out of 3,000 ShotSpotter alerts in San Francisco over a two-and-a-half-year period, only two resulted in an arrest and only one was gun related.

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A 2013 investigation by WYNC in Newark, New Jersey found between 2010-Aug 2013, “75 percent of the gunshot alerts have been false alarms. But police are often deployed to the location anyway, just in case there is a shooter.”

Despite the go-ahead from the TPSB and Tory, the idea of using the ShotSpotter technology and increasing surveillance cameras raises questions about privacy.

“It says that it only picks up the acoustic sounds associated with gunshots, ‘bang’, etc., and if that’s the case, if it’s that narrow and it’s restricted only to picking up gunshots sounds … this is what I would like to clarify — I want to make sure that no conversations are picked up,” former privacy commissioner and privacy expert Ann Cavoukian told Global News on Thursday. “The point is to not eavesdrop on people, it’s to pick up and detect gunshots.”

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Cavoukian said the technology needs to be used “appropriately.”

“We need very strong guidelines as to how this stuff is going to operate and we need independent oversight, we can’t just have the police running this thing.”

The TPSB decided that Police Chief Mark Saunders will make a full presentation to the board in September, further explaining the security camera and ShotSpotter technologies, and what oversight police will implement for them. It is not clear at this time exactly how, if passed, the new measures will be overseen.

Cavoukian stressed the need for people to be able to protect their privacy.

LISTEN: Privacy expert Ann Cavoukian weighs in

“We cannot tolerate the continued erosion of our privacy,” she said. “If you value your freedom then you value privacy. People don’t make that link and that’s why we can’t just continue to have increases in surveillance and tracking of our activities.”

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As for ShotSpotter, its privacy policy also stated that it “does not have the ability to listen to indoor conversations.” It said it also does not have the ability to “overhear normal speech or conversations on public streets.” The company said there has been “three extremely rare ‘edge cases'”(out of 3 million incidents detected in the past 10 years) in which a human voice was overheard. Audio recordings of voices have been used to prosecute suspects in at least two cases in the U.S.

For technology author and journalist Andy Walker, the question isn’t necessarily about privacy, which he said the idea of is “dead” already due to today’s technology, it is about how will the information compiled by the cameras and ShotSpotter be used.

“If they’re using it against you, potentially, that’s really a concern,” he said. “… We have to trust our government and the judicial system to make sure that at least there’s some semblance of protection from unfair prosecution.”

Walker agreed with Cavoukian’s assessment that there needs to be some sort of watchdog-type organization keeping an eye on the new measures.

“We have to strike a balance between letting the police do their job and give them the tools to do so and protecting somebody’s privacy.”

Both said people should be informed as to how the information will be used, if it will be deleted after a certain period of time and who will be monitoring the audio and visual feeds.

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“We’re going to have to be on top of it as a public to ensure our individuals rights be reserved,” Walker said.

READ MORE: Toronto officer sends email calling out mayor over gun violence

While Saunders has said he has an idea as to where the ShotSpotter technology would go, executive director and general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association Michael Bryant told Global News on Thursday he feared the implementation would play into the notion of racial profiling and may be put into “racialized neighbourhoods.”

“I don’t think they’re going to be putting one of these up in Rosedale or Forest Hill. I expect it will be going up in racialized neigbourhoods which used to be under siege through stop and frisk, carding,” he said.

“Now it’s been replaced with some technology. I’m not sure which is worse,” he said. “I just know that it ends up being a form of racial profiling and it’s also a further erosion of our privacy rights.

Bryant said the position of the CCLA is that “the only way you can use these is to get a warrant for each and every instance for which you utilized the technology … we feel that they need to get a warrant to set it up in the first place.”

The announcement of the potential implementation of the technology, Bryant said, was “fairly sudden,” and the rush to get it approved Monday (at city council’s last meeting of 2018) does not give the organization ample opportunity to give council advice to the city, the TPSB or the mayor.

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Bryant said the CCLA will also put together something “more comprehensive that is a positive contribution to this issue that will allow for constitutional ways to address the increase in gun violence as opposed to these constitutionally risky and potentially wasteful and harmful ways to combat gun violence.”

He said the police need to be transparent as to how the evidence obtained by the technology will be used.

As of Thursday, police figures showed gun violence has killed 27 people and injured 82 so far in 2018 in Toronto, compared with 17 deaths and 80 injured at this time in 2017.

Sureya Ibrahim, community relations specialist for Regent Park, told Global News on Friday she believed the new measures were a “good idea” but also said they need to be part of a more “wholesome approach,” meaning measures also need to be put into place to prevent the gun violence in the first place.

Examples brought forth by Ibrahim included creating initiatives to provide a “meaningful future for the young people, so they won’t be thinking they don’t have a choice or they don’t have a life.”

“That way we won’t have this vicious cycle of gangs and groups,” she said, emphasizing that the city shouldn’t exhaust all of its resources on policing and surveillance but some should go to the community to help make “society better.”

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City council will meet Monday and make the decision as to whether to approve the new measures, which Tory said will cost $4 million over two years. However, Tory said the cost will likely be covered by crime prevention funding from the federal and provincial governments.

With files from The Canadian Press

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