Report: 'ShotSpotter' sensor locations leaked, critics allege discrimination

Secret ShotSpotter sensor locations throughout the United States were recently leaked – leading to a WIRED analysis that made the data public.

The secret information was leaked from Sound Thinking, the company behind ShotSpotter. Even law enforcement agencies like Detroit police do not have access to the microphone sensor locations.

"What it points to is a lack of good security on the part of the companies that are providing the service," said Scotty Boman of the Detroit Residents Advancing Civilian Oversight.

Critics say the sensors can be used to invade privacy by overhearing conversations. 

"It is accessible by other people who are locked into that system – and if the system isn’t secure, it’s not just available to people who have access to the system, it’s available to people who shouldn’t have access to the system," Boman said.

Often found in low income and predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods, the technology is prompting claims of "techno-racism."

Willie Burton, on Detroit’s Board of Commissioners, said he welcomes the publishing of the secret sensor locations. 

"It’s definitely transparent and it shows accountability when this article is out there for the public," Burton said. "This technology is definitely not… saving lives. It’s definitely unconstitutional. It violates civil liberties, our constitutional rights every single day."

The sensors have been installed on numerous schools, billboards, and government buildings in urban areas around the country, according to WIRED. A large cluster of the sensors are located on Detroit’s east and west sides.

The publication indicates that approximately 70% of individuals residing in a community where there is at least one sensor identify themselves as either Black or Latino.

"We want to see the full data. We haven’t looked at the total number of alerts and how it wastes the taxpayer’s dollars when police are responding to false alerts," Burton said. "We haven’t saw how many guns recovered. We have not looked at total arrests, or convictions, or lawsuits."

To determine where the sensors should be placed, police give ShotSpotter the areas where high rates of "shots-fired" incidents are occurring, DPD told FOX 2. ShotSpotter, in turn, sets up the technology to ensure full coverage of these selected regions.

In the meantime, critics said the money dumped into ShotSpotter would be more effective in other ways.

"Perhaps it could have been spent on more officers," Boman said. "Perhaps it could have been spent on more community engagement, perhaps it could have been spent on dealing with some of the problems that end up bringing about crime, perhaps it could have stayed in people’s pockets."

Sound Thinking believes the secret data was illegally leaked by former employees and is seeking legal action, according to the parent company.

A Sound Thinking spokesperson addressed the concerns about privacy violations:

"ShotSpotter sensors are tuned to detect gunshot-like impulses that are instantaneous and sharp. Only when three or more different sensors detect a gunshot-like sound at the same time and determine a location, is a short audio snippet sent for authorized human review. Sound snippets only include the recording of potential gunfire and one second before and after to establish a base noise level. Recorded sounds are only stored in ShotSpotter systems for 30 hours, and then are immediately deleted.

"An independent audit conducted by the New York University Policing Project concluded that the risk of voice surveillance is extremely limited and in 2019, the Privacy Advisory Commission of the City of Oakland unanimously approved the Oakland Police Department’s continued use of ShotSpotter despite one of the strongest surveillance ordinances in the country."

DPD said they share Sound Thinking's concers over the release of the sensor locations. 

"We will continue to work with Sound Thinking toward ensuring that the integrity of the Shot Spotter sensors and the information derived from them remains intact. Over the past 24 hours, some have used this security breach as a platform against the use of Shot Spotter technology, including allegations that the use of such sensors invades the privacy rights of Detroit residents or targets an individual by their race," according to DPD. "To reiterate, there is no expectation of privacy in the percussion sounds of a firearm, which is what the Shot Spotter sensors are specially designed to capture. This is true regardless of the race, sex, or other classification of the person firing the weapon."

DPD 'will continue to uphold its commitment of using this technology in a constitutional manner," according to their statement. 

A member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners said that the city put an additional $400,000 towards ShotSpotter in the next budget. A 3 p.m. meeting, open to the public, will be held Thursday at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.