Toronto's aural panic: why we need digital rights now


Originally published at:

Last week, my city became a garbage fire. Within 48 hours of a mass shooting on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, City Council had passed a motion to purchase the American acoustic surveillance system ShotSpotter, making Toronto the first Canadian municipality to adopt the technology. As Americans already know, the system is designed to monitor “at risk” (read: poor and black) neighbourhoods for potential gunshots, which it geolocates and pushes to local law enforcement personnel for a substantial fee. Of course, ShotSpotter would have done nothing to prevent the tragedy on the Danforth and there are real questions about its effectiveness as a gunshot detection system, but why let facts get in the way of a rash political decision?


The logical platform to run any sort of shot spotting software is obviously cell phones. They’ve already got GPS on board, and mics we already can’t turn off.




Not that I don’t have serious reservations of my own about ubiquitous surveillance for profit, but this strategy of calling for a “discussion” seems a bit wishy-washy. They’re asking the government to run off, have a conversation about some issues and then come back with a strategy. But these conversations are already happening in different sections of the government, if not all at the same table. The CRTC is already talking about equitable internet access and holding hearings. Privacy is always on the table, more so now than ever with the passage of the GDPR in Europe.

It seems like what this group really wants is not for the government to run off, have a conversation and then adopt whatever strategy it decides is prudent. It seems like what this group really wants is for that strategy to guarantee specific rights and protections for individuals. Why not be clear about what rights and protections they’re looking for?

The risk of just insisting the government have a discussion and consider certain factors is that the government will do exactly that and still reach a conclusion they’re unhappy with, except now the government can say “We did what you asked”.

Edited to add: I see that they do hint at this on the web site, stating that “This digital rights strategy should also include a discussion about data minimization: collecting personal data only when it is absolutely needed; deciding if some types of data should never be collected; keeping data only for as long as necessary; and limiting access to only those who truly need it.”. But this isn’t part of the petition itself.

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I’m changing my ringtone to AR-15 and keeping the volume UP.


Hear that? You hear that? AR-15s, son. Nothing else in the world sounds like that. I love the sound of AR’s in the morning. It sounds like … victory.

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Mixed results.

The program has been successful in Denver, where 425 recorded gunshots led to 29 arrests and the recovery of 16 weapons. In New York City, the technology helped police recover 32 firearms, including 13 involved in cases with no 911 call. But in Newark, Oakland and San Francisco, the results have not been as positive.

In 2013, officials in Newark said that 75 percent of the gunshot alerts turned out to be false, leading to police being deployed to areas where no shooting had occurred.

Officials in Oakland called the system redundant because people call them when a shooting occurs and said the $264,000 could have been used to fund other technology.

San Francisco officials reported they had made two arrests and recovered one gun after two and a half years and 3,000 alerts.


Like an extra creepy merger of ShotSpotter and the Vigilante/Citizen app?


Quite. Matt Drange has been my go-to for analysis and a solid infographic. Would have been nice if Toronto City Council had looked at this before their vote.


Huh. See, if I had any faith in the system, it could, in concept, be run cleanly. The mic would only register bangs like fireworks or. Gunshots or engines backfiring. And it would provide a location for the gunshot directly to law enforcement, and everything would be transparent after the fact, maybe logs would auto publish after an embargo.

But it this ‘real world’, yeah, it’d end up looking like that app formerly known as vigilante.


Fair point. I’ve asked the folks from DRN to chime in on this, but for now I think having support helps them to make a stronger and clearer case to the government bodies they’re dealing with. The ShotSpotter vote really crystallized the opposition to surveillance technologies in Toronto, so that’s something to build on going forward.

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Thanks for this, as one of the people behind the petition campaign happy to chime in. The idea here is a call for extensive public education and consultation before defining what to do. There are a lot of people that haven’t been at the table to date in these discussions to weigh in, so the language is intentionally not prescriptive. Have definitely heard others share your sentiments though and I take the point, particularly in how it might reduce the strength of the call to action in a campaign like this. Appreciate you engaging on it, thanks again.


Reading between the lines, the fact that ShotSpotter has to have their own humans in the loop isn’t so much value-added, but to try to cut down on the large number of false reports.

Someone to network with:
Letter to the editor, Cameron Shelley, Centre for Society, Technology and Values, University of Waterloo:

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Good to hear. Re-reading my post, my tone was a little self-righteous. Sorry about that, the tail end of a long day.

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Thanks for the link, and good point. The thing is, sonic data has always needed analysis and interpretation. When cities started using decibel meters in the 1920s they thought decibel readings would solve the problem of urban noise. It didn’t, of course. In the case of ShotSpotter, it takes the job of interpretation away from neighbourhood residents (the people who would normally judge whether the sound was worthy of a 911 call) and hands it over to company analysts who have no contextual information, which is part of the cost. And which, as you note, underscores the limitations of the data they’re working with.


Because if you don’t, you will be pilloried by voters like me because there was a terrible tragedy, and your response was to do nothing.

Now in this case, the solution trips a different hot button, so I’ll add my voice to Cory’s complaint.

But given how often I do call for instant action in response to an outrage, I’ve helped train politicians a basic truth - demonstrating their willingness to address a problem is far more important what whether their solution actually works. Especially, when “works” will also have its own harm.

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