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Mobile’s Gun Violence Reduction Plan Sparks Surveillance Concerns

The Alabama city voted unanimously to install cameras to support ShotSpotter, an auditory gunshot detection technology, which has raised concerns about potential governmental monitoring and data collection.

(TNS) — A key initiative toward Mobile, Ala.,’s strategy at reducing gun violence is sparking a debate over how much of “Big Brother” should be watching the city’s streets.

The Mobile City Council, on Tuesday, voted unanimously to support a $525,574 contract with Alabama Power Co. to install cameras that will assist in the detecting gunshots.

The money comes from the city’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Act. The cameras will support a previous $640,000 contract that city leaders backed in early February with Newark, California-based ShotSpotter. That three-year contract is for audio detection technology to pinpoint where gunshots occur.

The decision to add the camera system and integrate it with ShotSpotter’s audio network sparked concerns in recent weeks over the potential of government surveillance abuse.

“It’s a very fine balance, in my opinion, between public safety and privacy,” said City Councilman Ben Reynolds. “Technology like this … I am for it. But I just want to make sure there is adequate protections in place for our citizens’ privacy along with (incorporating) this technology that is supposed to help.”

Adding Protections

Reynolds, before the council voted on the Alabama Power agreement, had an addendum approved by his colleagues that prohibits the cameras from being used in a “perpetual or long-term monitoring or information collection program.”

The addendum also states the cameras are to be focused on areas where “persons have no reasonable expectation of privacy,” unless specified in a warrant.

“Are we creating a dossier of our citizens?” Reynolds said. “I don’t think that is happening, but I don’t know if it’s happening. I’ve been told there are administrative polices in place to protect citizens. The concern is when rely on our government to rely on those protections.”

The surveillance concerns come as city officials are pushing to get the latest crime-fighting system installed by sometime between May 1 and June 1. The program is part of Mobile’s “Operation Echo Stop,” a multi-prong effort to reduce gun violence by focusing on prevention, deterrence, compliance, and detection.

Lawrence Battiste, the city’s executive director of public safety, said the system is part of a “series of strategies” law enforcement is instituting to combat a rise in violent crime. The crime wave erupted over the weekend with 18 shootings and three deaths spread throughout Mobile. Shootings happened at busy intersections, at a concert and during a Sunday night vigil.

Battiste said the camera system, which is not part of the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, will enhance investigative efforts to identify shooters quicker. The cameras will be installed in areas where shootings are common.

“Many times, we have victims who are uncooperative,” Battiste said. “But I don’t necessarily need my victim (to provide details about the perpetrator) if I have digital evidence to show this crime occurred and (a specific person) committed the office.”

Alabama Power, in a statement, said the installation of the camera system is part of the company’s “commitment to public safety” by allowing them affixed to power poles.

The company’s statement to reads, “The goal of these partnerships is to help local authorities keep residents safe. Alabama Power will not have access to the City of Mobile’s audio or video recordings. All policing is left to the proper authorities.

Worthwhile Tool

Battiste said the cameras will support ShotSpotter’s array of acoustic sensors within a specific coverage area.

The sensors, according to the company, listen for “loud, impulsive sounds that may be gunfire.” Once captured, ShotSpotter’s computers dismiss sounds that are not clearly gunfire such as fireworks.

The remaining sounds are then sent to trained ShotSpotter reviewers who are located at a ShotSpotter Incident Review Center (ICR). Those reviewers then attempt to match the sound to the typical gunfire pattern, assess the grouping of sensors that participated in the detection, and either publish the incident to police as gunfire or dismiss it as a false alarm.

According to ShotSpotter, the entire process typically occurs within 60 seconds from the time of the gunfire to the time the alert is sent to law enforcement.

Criticism about the system’s reliability has heighted in the past year as ShotSpotter’s services have expanded amid growing violence in cities nationwide. The company often rebuts the criticism and points to what they say is a high accuracy rate for gunshot detection.

ShotSpotter technology is utilized in over 120 cities across the U.S. It’s been utilized in Birmingham since 2007 and went live in Montgomery in 2009.

Battiste said it’s a worthwhile law enforcement tool and defended the city’s plans for the system on Monday during a news conference at Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office.

“If you have a piece of technology as a tool in the tool belt and you’re not utilizing all of the tools available to do a better job, then I think you have failed the people you’ve ask permission to in moving forward on a project,” he said. “We don’t intend to bring a system online that we won’t put the other resources in place to make sure we are getting the very best (results) out of it.”

He added, “Initially, it will start as a tool to apprehend. The ultimate goal is to move forward in putting the best thing in place to deter criminal behavior and violent criminal behavior in our community.”

‘Ripe for Abuse’

At least one expert in government surveillance said systems aimed at combatting crime can be “ripe for abuse.”

Lawrence Cappello, professor of U.S. legal and constitutional history at the University of Alabama, said an important component to Mobile’s program to ensure that “mission creep” does not occur, which means the system is used for more than its intended.

“It’s where the real heart of the privacy issues take place,” Cappello said. “It’s not whether we should or shouldn’t (implement the surveillance system) it’s that we should implement this system and here are 15 ways to prevent it from being abused.”

He said that efforts by policymakers to spell out the use of the cameras before they are purchased and installed is vital to curbing potential abuse.

“The questions of who has access (to the camera recordings) and the use of it, that’s the only way to move forward intelligently,” said Cappello, author of the 2019 book, “None of Your Damn Business: Privacy in the United States from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age.”

He added, “If you don’t answer that beforehand, then that’s being irresponsible.”

Reynold said prospects for abuse someday is one of the reasons he pushed to have the addendum added to the agreement with Alabama Power.

“The intent of the addendum is that there wasn’t a prolonged surveillance operation that could go on with these cameras,” he said. “There are cameras across the city that (are paid for by the state or federal government). But from my perspective, if the city was paying for it, I didn’t want (the cameras) to be looking into someone’s backyard.”

Privacy Concerns

ShotSpotter technology is not the sole focus of the concerns by Reynolds and others over the new monitoring system.

Catherine Crump, a clinical professor and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkley School of Law in California, said the ShotSpotter system itself is considered “one of the more targeted surveillance options available these days.”

She said it’s not as “objectionable from a privacy standpoint” as networks that consist of surveillance cameras and automatic license plate readers.

“That is because it’s triggered in response to something specific and also records for a short duration, rather than recording absolutely everything all the time,” Crump said.

Jay Staley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, a leading civil liberties group in the U.S., said his organization doesn’t see the ShotSpotter system as an “active threat” to privacy.

“The architecture of this system reduces the concerns,” Staley said to “The microphones tend to be up higher and record short loops and only sends recordings off the censors when there is a pop or a bang.”

But he said in general that any system which “puts microphones in public places is a very serious privacy concern.” He said his concerns are more with the precedent the system sets for future technology that could lead to abuse.

He added, “It’s something to be vigilant about and would you want them right outside your house? I don’t think most people would.”

Reynolds said he believes the laws protecting privacy are “way behind the curve” of technology that has evolved over the years.

He said one of the concerns he has had with the gunshot detection system is with further erosions of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The law is not always so clear on this,” Reynolds said. “The expectations of privacy in the 1950s versus the same citizen expectation of privacy today are quite different. That has eroded away the Fourth Amendment so much so that if we stay on this course and we don’t make clear lines on what the expectation of privacy is, then it will be whittled down to where the Fourth Amendment is ineffective.”

Cappello said city officials will have to be mindful of those issues and others.

He said as with other cities, the track record is that once the cameras are installed, they are likely to stay up.

“I have never seen the cameras taken down,” he said. “For whatever reason, these things go up and they don’t become minimized. They can become more controlled. Due to budget constraints, they can go unmanned. But for the most part, when the cameras go up, they stay up and so minimizing use and making sure who has access to it … how it’s used and the guidelines on what we are accomplishing with them is the critical question for legislation moving forward.”

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