In Methuen, MA, security contractor Shooter Detection Systems (“1-844-SHOT911”) has convinced school administrators to install a “Guardian” system that “constantly monitors” school hallways and classrooms for sounds of gunfire. As an extra, they got local Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to intone pieties about making schools “safe sanctuaries for learning.” Apparently, that means “lending my credibility to a sales campaign that will funnel school tax money away from teachers and supplies and into the pockets of contractors, in the name of thwarting random low-probability events.”
Raw Story picked up the press release, and indulged in their own little bit of security theater, noting soberly that the PR firm for Shooter Detection Systems had asked them not to reveal the name of the school even while they had named the relevant town in its own press release.
We last reported from Methuen last year, when “DJ Cammy Dee” (a.k.a. Methuen High School senior Cameron D’Ambrosio) raised the ire of the school administration by posting violent rap lyrics to his Facebook page and found himself facing charges of twenty years in jail for making “criminal terroristic threats.” Cammy Dee is free today because the grand jury refused to indict, but maybe MHS is concerned that his terrifying terroristic writings have radicalized others?
We talked to the PR agency for Shooter Detection Systems, who responded to our questions as follows:
Shooter Detection Systems has met with several privacy groups and specifically designed this system so it could NOT be used for any other purpose than reporting gunfire. We are very sensitive to this issue and have taken several steps to assure that our approach will not be intrusive for our citizens. […] The Guardian Gen 1 (the system in Methuen) constantly monitors for pre-established gunshot signatures and then matches this data to pre-known infrared signatures. It does NOT record background sounds, and it does not need ambient light signature information. Once it determines this, and only then, it records a half-second of audio before the shot and 1 second of audio after the shot which is used for engineering analysis only. These recordings are used for future engineering improvements only and can be disabled. There are no other storage capabilities in the system.
The gunshot detection microphones are not standard microphones and are not useful for hearing voices. In the 1.5-second recording, general crowd noise or general noises can be discerned but it is not designed for general voice recording.
They quote the MA wiretapping law, and note that “This clause is sent to all customers, and they agree that the law will be adhered to regarding the use of the devices.”
It is obviously appropriate for firms to modify their systems with privacy in mind, especially as such systems do run into trouble. But there is still, unavoidably, a legally relevant unauthorized audio interception of students. Shooter Detection Systems appears to deal with this issue by instructing schools to comply with the law, including wiretapping law; but if a school invests in a Guardian system, and a student at the school then withholds consent, is the school really going to take it out?
School shootings are exceedingly rare and nearly random. There is no jurisdiction where a coolly rational weighing of the tradeoffs would result in actually paying for such a system, which at best, in the highly unlikely event of a roaming, constantly firing school shooter, can shave a few minutes off the police response.
Unfortunately, as the comments on Raw Story show, Shooter Detection Systems can also depend on enough people not thinking about this with cool rationality or with a sense of the tradeoffs involved:
To me, even one child shot down like a dog while in school is too many. I’m trying to fathom how you dismiss this according to what you figure is an “insignificant” number of bullet-riddled dead children. What number would be your turning point? Did the dead children before then not count, because you didn’t feel any horror at their deaths? I know how I’d feel if I went to the morgue to see my six-year-old for the last time, knowing he died surrounded by terror.
The risk of either of my six-year-olds being shot in school is in truth exceedingly small, and a system like this has an infinitesimal chance of actually saving any lives. On the other hand, the risk under this system of my kids becoming habituated to being monitored 24/7 is 100%. The principle that schools should be free spaces – free of audio sensors, infrared sensors, image sensors – is far more important than a vestigial improvement to public safety.
It’s true that Not-Methuen-High-School didn’t actually have to pay for this system.* (Maintenance and service contracts presumably not included.) That is how it begins. It’s a demonstration project to convince other school systems to pay actual money for it. And if this gets off the ground, it will be very effective at one thing: diverting school budgets away from education and towards security theater.