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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Chicago Goes All In on the Surveillance State

If we don't roll back the surveillance state, the government will continue to ratchet up its power at the expense of our liberty.

Big Brother is Watching and Listening

On January 27, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department announced the expansion of law enforcement surveillance systems within the city. The announcement was made just a few days following President Donald Trump’s vague threat of federal intervention in Chicago in response to continued gun-related violence:

The Panopticon

Touting technological advancements, Emanuel and CPD presented the development of pervasive monitoring as the latest tool to quell firearms-related violence throughout Chicago. However, despite assurances from the government and the system’s manufacturer, this expansion of surveillance in America’s third-largest city does not bode well for individual liberty, nor privacy advocates.

The main program is called ShotSpotter, a system that attempts to pinpoint the location of gunfire by electronically monitoring and capturing sound. 150 cell phones will be distributed to officers in the Englewood and Harrison police districts, two of the city’s highest crime areas, loaded with apps that will deliver shooting and incident information in real time.

ShotSpotter now will cover 13.5 square miles — the entirety of those police districts — whereas the system was previously available in 1.5-square-mile patches in the Englewood and Harrison districts. Police will also broaden the footprint of the Police Observation Device cameras by twenty-five percent to monitor the areas in conjunction with ShotSpotter. This system will employ the largest network of surveillance cameras in the country for only two of Chicago’s twenty-five police districts, which account for almost a quarter of all shootings in the city.

Officers will staff the newly created Strategic Decision Support Centers twenty-four hours a day and use HunchLab — a Web-based system that crunches information on arrests, gang activity, weather and other data — to create predictive data methods to anticipate where violent crime will occur.

The Implementation

Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project spoke with Ralph Clark, CEO of Shotspotter, in May 2015, to ask him about his company’s system and how it works:

  • Shotspotter is based on the placement of 15-20 “sensors” per square mile, each containing a microphone, GPS for clock data, memory and processing, and cell capability to transmit data.
  • The sensors are placed as low as 20 feet above the ground
  • The sensors constantly record audio, and monitor that audio for explosion-like noises like a gunshot.
  • The audio is recorded and locally stored by the sensor. The audio is overwritten on a rolling basis. This spool cannot be used as a live audio stream.
  • When the sensor detects a gunshot-like noise, it sends a report (just a timestamp) to a centralized “LocServer.” When the LocServer gets reports from three or more sensors that line up in time and space, that is considered a “possible gunshot.” The LocServer then contacts the sensors and downloads audio of the sound, including 2 seconds before and 4 seconds after the shot or shots.
  • Those audio snippets are transmitted to a review center, where humans analyze them (listen, review the waveforms, etc.) to decide whether they think it was a real gunshot. If such a determination is made, an alert is sent to local police, as is the audio. The audio goes to the local patrol car, so that the officers know what they’re dealing with.

via City Light Capital

The Justification

In Chicago, 2016 ended with 783 homicides, the most since 1996, according to data collected by the Tribune. But that’s not the only statistic to note:

Chicago’s city-wide per capita murder rate, which is better at capturing human risk because it takes into account the total population, is well below that of other cities, including St. Louis and Baltimore, a review of the FBI’s most recent crime data reveals.

Is a ubiquitous surveillance system even legal? Shouldn’t we be concerned? Shotspotter CEO Ralph Clark responded to the ACLU during his interview:

If you’re really worried about that, what about your cell phone? If you’re worried about NSA boogeymen, they’re not going to be using our sensors, they’ll be using your phone. It’s in your pocket and has a better microphone.

But even if deemed legal, there are serious doubts regarding the efficacy of such a preventative mechanism. Regardless, an omnipresent monitoring system doesn’t protect individual liberty, but only strengthens the power of the state.

“This does allow our police officers to be in the right place at the right time to prevent a shooting from ever happening,” Emanuel said. Later, he said, “The technology is the right investment so our officers can be more efficient to disrupt something before it happens.”

“CPD will continue to use every available resource to fight gun violence in our city,” Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said in the news release. “This technology allows us to police smarter and be more proactive than reactive when it comes to responding to and investigating shooting incidents across the districts.”

The Police Department has used the ShotSpotter occasionally in the past decade. Former Superintendent Garry McCarthy touted the system in 2012. Prior to that, the city twice installed the devices but ultimately removed them because of their high price tags and ineffectiveness.

The Dissenters

Law enforcement is reactionary, not preventive, and there is no reason to believe the government will be more successful with this endeavor than past attempts, despite software and hardware improvements and integration with other systems used by CPD. The government and police are basically employing a technologically advanced Philip K. Dick-style conspiracy generator with the hope that the data inputted will return valid output.

Jay Stanley from the ACLU underscores the threat of this expansion of surveillance power:

And once the microphones become an embedded, accepted part of our urban landscape, they’re not going to disappear. The assurances Clark is providing, on the other hand, if they’re not rigorously entrenched into law, practice, and expectation, may disappear over time. Clark will not be the only CEO and Shotspotter may not be the only company overseeing such microphones.


But I am concerned over the precedent of allowing our cities to be sprinkled with live microphones that are not subject to transparent operation, and where that will lead over coming years and decades.

The issue, as always, is liberty versus power.

Generations of Americans have lived under a pervasive and expanding surveillance state, particularly over the past few decades. As technology improves and the cost of surveillance decreases, governments will avail themselves of the latest advancements to snoop, watch, listen, record, note, catalog, and store data.

The greatest threat domestically is clearly emerging from the rise of militarized government police forces and their surveillance apparatus. If we do not begin to rollback the surveillance state, the government will continue to ratchet up its power falsely in the name of security, and at the expense of our liberty.

Republished from The Libertarian Institute.

  • Jared Labell is the Executive Director of The Libertarian Institute as well as Taxpayers United of America.