“Is NYC’s new gunshot detection system recording private conversations?” asks Fusion in a recent story about ShotSpotter, a sensor technology currently being set up in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
ShotSpotter sensors use microphone and satellite technology to detect, locate and report gunshots to police. Critics worry that the microphones are prone to false alarms, and more troubling, appear to vacuum up street-level conversations in the neighborhoods where it has been installed. Evidence from conversations recorded by ShotSpotter microphones has been used to prosecute criminals in court.
While questions linger for watchdog and privacy groups about the use of ShotSpotter technology, an aggressive lobbying campaign has helped ensure the devices have been deployed in over 90 cities across the country.
The Ferguson Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, boasts that it secured more than $7 million in federal funding to support the purchase of ShotSpotter. “TFG has conversations with interested communities and discusses process and assesses viability of request [sic], drafts and provides briefing sheets to communities and submits requests to their House and Senate delegation,” reads a case study posted on The Ferguson Group’s website.
ShotSpotter contracts with four D.C. lobbying shops, including the powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs and the Raben Group, the firm that helps orchestrate Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group closely aligned with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and various police unions across the country. The firm also has an array of local and state lobbyists on contract. In New York City, for instance, the company retained Greenberg Traurig in the past, and now works with a former aides to Sheldon Silver and Bloomberg through the firm Mercury Group Public Affairs.
The company’s approach is detailed in emails from Phil Dailly, Southeast Region Sales Director for ShotSpotter, to the City of Miami. Dailly references a supportive city resolution and lists viable funding mechanisms, including purchasing the technology through the Community Oriented Policing program, a special fund administered by the Department of Justice, or through police department asset forfeiture money, funds often raised through drug busts. Promotional materials also list the DOJ’s Justice Assistance Grant program, Public Housing Agencies and Community Benefit Funds as potential funding sources. The company retained two local lobbyists in Miami to help move the process along.
Poor dears. A bunch of law enforcement associations are worried that they won’t be able to keep all that sweet, sweet ALPR (automatic license plate reader) data for as long as they want to. In fact, they’re so worried, they’ve issued a letter in response to a nonexistent legislative threat.
Despite the fact that no federal license plate legislation has been proposed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has sent a pre-emptive letter to top Congressional lawmakers, warning them against any future restrictions of automated license plate readers. The IACP claims to be the “world’s oldest and largest association of law enforcement executives.”
The letter is stained with the tears of law enforcement entities whose thirst for bulk collections is only rivaled by national security agencies.
We are deeply concerned about efforts to portray automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology as a national real-time tracking capability for law enforcement. The fact is that this technology and the data it generates is not used to track people in real time. ALPR is used every day to generate investigative leads that help law enforcement solve murders, rapes, and serial property crimes, recover abducted children, detect drug and human trafficking rings, find stolen vehicles, apprehend violent criminal alien fugitives, and support terrorism investigations.
The “efforts to portray” ALPRs as ad hoc tracking devices aren’t limited to imaginative conspiracy theorists. Millions of plate scans are added to private companies’ databases every day. The total number of records retained by Vigilant, the most prominent manufacturer of ALPRs, totals in the billions. That amount of data can easily be used to track nearly anyone’s day-to-day movements. And the database is accessible by law enforcement agencies around the nation. There’s no geofencing keeping the data compartmentalized to what’s “relevant” to local agencies.