As technology continues to advance, balancing its benefits against some of its inherent risks to privacy continues to be an issue which confronts us all. What’s true for technology in general is also the case in the realm of public safety. Technological advances have provided significant benefits to those tasked with keeping us safe while at the same time raising appropriate dialogue about how we can leverage those benefits while minimizing unwarranted intrusions on personal privacy.
Please note: this section refers to the SST ShotSpotter outdoor gunfire detection technology. Indoor sensors are entirely different and provide additional privacy protections.
ShotSpotter sensors are specifically designed to be triggered by loud explosive or “impulsive” sounds only. The entire system is intentionally designed not to permit “live listening” of any sort. Human voices do not trigger ShotSpotter sensors. There are many other loud noises that do not trigger ShotSpotter: car doors slamming, people yelling “bang bang!”, loud music, airplane engines, leaf blowers, cheering, highway noise, car engines revving, drag races or tires squealing.
In addition, sensors are intentionally deployed in elevated locations (typically 50-100 feet above street level on building rooftops, sometimes 30-40 feet above ground on a street pole) for three reasons:
1) to maximize their ability to “listen to the horizon” and thereby reduce the number of sensors required;
2) to minimize the background noise from cars and other street noises, thus also reducing the number of sensors required; and
3) to minimize the chance that a human voice will be intelligible, however briefly, in order to protect privacy.
The microphones themselves are similar to those in a mobile phone. When spoken outdoors at distances in excess of approximately 10 feet, a private conversation spoken in a normal voice is simply not intelligible to a human, to a mobile phone, or to ShotSpotter sensors. This is an intentional engineering and design choice made to ensure that ShotSpotter sensors cannot be used to monitor private conversations. It would be safe to say that an individual walking down the street and speaking into a mobile phone is more likely to unintentionally overhear and transmit the private conversation of someone else walking and talking nearby than that a ShotSpotter sensor, far further away, and only triggered by loud, impulsive noises, would be.
When a loud explosive noise triggers a sensor, it instantly sends summary data about the acoustic event (e.g. time stamp, sensor location, amplitude and envelope characteristics, etc. but explicitly not the audio of the sound itself) to a centralized processor at our SST-operated data center. There, if no other sensors trigger (i.e., if only one sensor hears the particular impulse), nothing else happens and no incident is created. If multiple sensors (usually 3 or more) report impulsive noises within a narrow time window which are sufficiently loud and mathematically consistent with their having originated at a single location, software algorithms attempt to calculate that origin location. If an accurate location can be determined, the associated sensors’ data are aggregated (again, without the audio) and an incident is “created” in a centralized database. A second filter then applies artificial intelligence and statistical techniques to attempt to identify what type of sound originated at this location based on the measurements of the sound. In most cases, the parameters of the sound permit the incident to be filtered out, because it is, e.g., a pile driver or a jackhammer. In a percentage of cases, the characteristics of the sound are consistent with an explosion (gunfire, firework mortar, firecracker, backfire, etc.). In those cases, and only in those cases, the sensors are permitted to push a small snippet of audio to our data center. Otherwise, the audio will be flushed from the sensor’s buffer and lost permanently. This is an intentional privacy-driven design: an active step must be taken only in the context of an explosive triggering acoustic event, or the audio is erased and overwritten.
In those cases in which an explosive triggering acoustic event is detected and located, the brief audio snippets are sent to SST’s Real Time Incident Review Center (IRC) for analysis and alert qualification by highly trained experts in gunshot acoustics. Within seconds, SST’s IRC sends those qualified gunfire alerts directly to a dispatch center, PSAP, patrol officers or other agencies for an effective, coordinated response. The gunfire alerts that the ShotSpotter system delivers to our police agency clients provide a digital record of violent gun crimes in progress, including minimally brief snippets of audio recordings of those crimes. For any given illegal gunfire incident, that snippet can only contain a few seconds of audio before the first shot and after the last shot. The purpose of these short seconds of audio on either end of the gunshots is to allow a human reviewing in the incident to clearly tell when the shooting starts and stops, including judges and juries during possible future criminal proceedings.
As mentioned above, the entire system is intentionally designed not to allow “live listening” of any sort. There is no “listen” button available to law enforcement, or to the staff of our Incident Review Center, except the buttons which replay the specific few seconds of incident audio surrounding an impulse noise determined to likely have originated from an explosive source.
ShotSpotter sensors do not have the ability to listen to indoor conversations. They do not have the ability to overhear normal speech or conversations on public streets. Recently, privacy zealots have pointed to three extremely rare “edge cases” (3 out of approximately 3 million incidents detected in the past 10 years), in which a human voice yelling loudly in a public street at the scene of a gunfire incident was overheard for a very brief period (a few seconds). They have inaccurately assumed that ShotSpotter sensors are constantly transmitting audio streams, or somehow have been reconfigured to listen to private conversations. That simply isn’t true. In one of these three cases, only two words were overheard; in the others, a sentence was heard before the gunshot and in the other a similar number of words were heard immediately after a gun shot. In all cases, the words were yelled loudly, in a public place, at the scene of a gunfire-related crime, and within a few seconds of that event.
If you are still with us, here are some additional details:
All servers and software used to process, store and protect data are managed and maintained by SST. Police agencies subscribe to the hosted service on an annual basis, radically streamlining the cost and complexity of using gunfire alert and analysis to enhance awareness, response and community safety. SST owns these data and does not release to anyone other than the customers under contract and according to the terms of that contract, thus further ensuring the safety and security of the data. Customers do not have administrative access to our servers, software, sensors, or any other means to circumvent SST’s security and privacy measures.
SST has taken appropriate security approaches to prevent anyone or any entity from gaining unauthorized access to our systems including our processors, networks or sensors. In addition to the fact that the system is designed not to permit live streaming audio, even if an intruder were to take control of our data center and network, they could not “make” a sensor deployed in the field stream audio. It simply isn’t possible: the sensors operate on a proprietary protocol and intentionally do not contain code which permits them to stream audio. Asymmetric key encryption is used to control access to sensors, and SST employees are required to use dual-factor authentication to gain access to most critical systems.
In the event that the ShotSpotter system fails to detect an incident, it is SST’s policy only to respond to requests for incident data or audio related to specific, verified gunfire incidents. In no event does incident audio extend beyond 2 seconds before and 4 seconds after an incident.
In addition to all of these technical and security measures taken to protect privacy and prevent misuse, SST has adopted a human resources policy to ensure that employees and contractors adhere to our privacy policies.
In the end, we believe that the privacy of our citizens and the community and social benefits of decreased gun violence are not at odds with each other. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that both are satisfied. We believe we have taken all reasonable and necessary precautions to assure a robust and strong privacy posture. We will continue to review, revise—and strengthen if necessary—these policies.