Privacy SOS

Shot-spotter is listening to more than just gun violence

Remember those creepy, listening street lights we told you about a while ago? Turns out those aren't the only Orwellian technologies that can listen to you as you walk down the street. An upcoming court case in Massachusetts highlights circumstances in which the police used the "ShotSpotter" to listen to someone shouting on a public street. If they did so without a warrant, it would arguably have been a violation of Massachusetts' wiretap laws, which make it illegal for anyone to secretly record a conversation without court approval.

ShotSpotter has been around for a while, and is spreading like wildfire throughout cities in the United States. The system consists of a series of listening devices that triangulate what they hear, enabling police to identify and locate the environs of a shooting within seconds, and at a geographic precision of less than 30 feet. The system typically costs cities millions of dollars, money critics say should instead go towards paying for uniforms on the beat. 

The Massachusetts case will be an important test of the state wiretap law. Will the court allow the street conversation to be used as evidence in the trial? If so, it could spark serious privacy concerns regarding the viability of the wiretap law to protect people from improper police spying. If the court declines to hear that evidence based on the lack of a warrant for obtaining this conversation, we could see the law strengthened in a manner that might prohibit Massachusetts cities and towns from ever buying the aforementioned, spying street lights. Stay tuned for more on this case.

Watch this promotional video from ShotSpotter to see how the firm sells it.

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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.