We're Watching How the Council Weighs the Devices Watching Us
The City Council is set to weigh a new contract for ShotSpotter, the flawed technology that threatens civil liberties and public safety, generating false alarms that have ended in escalating violence between police and community members.
On Tuesday, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit will ask the City Council to approve a new contract for the Shotspotter surveillance technology. Shotspotter is audio recording technology that constantly records public noise with the intention of detecting gunshots and automatically notifying police. This flawed technology threatens civil liberties and public safety, generating false alarms that have ended in escalating violence between police and community members.
I live and work in one of the only four San Diego neighborhoods that have Shotspotters installed. The microphones on these flawed technologies listen to us without our consent. They give police an excuse to intervene violently in neighborhoods where they have not been called. Once one of these microphones is triggered, police then make the assumption that anyone in that area could be armed and dangerous. This happens despite the evidence that Shotspotters are often triggered by loud sounds like jackhammers, nail guns or engine noises. In an environment where law enforcement often fear the communities they are supposed to be protecting, alerts and fear can be a deadly combination.
In March, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by Chicago police, while running away with his hands up. Chicago police were responding to a Shotspotter gunshot alert. Toledo had not fired the shots.
Shotspotters are, as Toledo’s murder testifies, a recipe for escalation and disaster. Across the country, Black and Brown communities have become a testing ground for deadly technological experiments.
While mass surveillance always threatens privacy, it also encourages agencies to act on our lives without using proper context or accountability. Its consequences on our lives should be given priority in shaping when, where and how it is used. We already live with heightened police surveillance and attempt to criminalize entire communities through gang databases and “gang suppression units.” Police have even illegally swabbed our kids for DNA. Would any of you tolerate this treatment in your neighborhood?
Last year, a unanimous City Council passed a surveillance oversight ordinance that laid out a process for community and expert involvement in San Diego’s surveillance technology decisions. That ordinance was passed specifically to deal with issues like this. Conversations with technological experts and impacted community members must take place in order to have a functioning democracy that truly represents the people’s interests.
If police were required to provide data and impact reports to the City Council, a few facts would likely come to light.
First would be that Shotspotter’s claims about how well its technology works have been refuted by studies and real-world numbers gathered from SDPD and other police departments nationwide. The company that sells the technology insists that the false positive rate is 0.5 percent, yet a study by Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center found that 89 percent of Shotspotter alerts in Chicago turned up no evidence of gun-related crime. A Voice of San Diego review found that San Diego police responded to “unfounded” Shotspotter activations far more often than the 0.5 percent rate. Police have also run into trouble attempting to use shot location estimates as evidence in court.
Second, surveillance companies like Shotspotter understate their encroachment on civil rights. For example, Shotspotter has marketed its technologies as unable to detect human voices. The cities of Oakland and New Bedford, Conn., however, discovered that human voices are, in fact, recorded by Shotspotter. Shotspotter even disclaims responsibility for the collection of human voices in its service contract with the city of San Diego. Even worse, the proposed contract even allows Shotspotter to sell data it gathers in San Diego. Would you want your conversation or other data collected by Shotspoter sold for profit?
Instead of using the money requested for Shotspotter on further criminalizing an entire community, why not take those funds and invest in proven violence prevention programs? We should be asking how Shotspotter leads to gun violence prevention, what other solutions have been considered and whether the risks and fiscal costs of Shotspotter are worth it.
San Diego supported a surveillance ordinance that allows for public input and careful evaluation of surveillance technologies, especially by the communities most directly impacted. We deserve elected officials who prioritize the implementation of policies (that have already been passed by the City Council) to govern the uses, and the fiscal, civil and equity impacts of all surveillance technologies.
San Diegans deserve to be protected from overzealous law enforcement and companies that try to profit from the absence of expert and community oversight.
Khalid Alexander is a professor at San Diego City College and the founder and president of Pillars of the Community. Lilly Irani is an associate professor at UC San Diego and a faculty member in the Institute for Practical Ethics. She is the author of “Chasing Innovation” and “Redacted.”