What would gunfire-tracking technology mean for civil liberties in Toronto?

OPINION: In the wake of yet another shooting, city council is set to approve millions in funding for surveillance. The issue deserves more than a rushed debate, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 24, 2018
guns on display
ShotSpotter, an American company, uses a network of digital microphones to detect and triangulate gunshots. (Peter Power/CP)

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The events of Sunday night in Toronto left three people dead: a 10-year-old girl, an 18-year-old woman, and the 29-year-old gunman himself. Thirteen more were wounded, some having sustained what police say will be “life-changing” injuries. This year, Toronto has seen an increase in both overall shootings and related deaths: according to police data, there have been 29 deaths so far in 2018, versus 17 last year and 25 the year before that. Non-gun homicides are also up.

But still: Toronto isn’t even the most dangerous place in Ontario, much less Canada. And while any given year can bring alarming reversals, Canada has overall become dramatically safer than it used to be.

And yet sometime today, Toronto city council is likely to approve $45 million in new spending, including $4 million for the Toronto Police Services to expand the use of closed-circuit television cameras and — more controversially — to acquire ShotSpotter technology, which tracks gunfire.

ShotSpotter, an American company, uses a network of digital microphones to detect and triangulate gunshots. Cities pay ShotSpotter to cover a defined urban area (typically paying per square mile in U.S. cities), and the company collects the data and alerts the police.

And that’s where the controversies start.

This quite plainly constitutes increased surveillance, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is already raising concerns about the use of ShotSpotter in this country, noting that if it’s found to have violated Canadian law or Charter guarantees, the evidence it produces could be deemed inadmissible in court.

“Worse, if placed in poor or diverse neighbourhoods, the new technology may be an unconstitutional sucker punch to racialized communities of Toronto,” the CCLA wrote in a letter to Toronto mayor John Tory.

ShotSpotter’s detractors say that the company’s claims are overblown, citing, for example, a Center for Investigative Journalism report that found that in San Francisco, more than 3,000 gunshot alerts had resulted in only two arrests.

But some locals do believe the technology has its benefits. When Oakland, California, proposed to cancel its contract with ShotSpotter in 2014, one resident told SFGate the move was a “cop-out” designed to give the police an excuse not to respond to gun crime in lower-income neighbourhoods.

The province’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner told TVO.org this week that it has already reached out to Toronto police for more information about the enhanced surveillance and how it will be implemented.

“If a citizen feels that their personal information has been compromised or a significant breach has, or is occurring, they can file a privacy complaint with our office,” the IPC told TVO.org in an email. The IPC can investigate and, if necessary, order the TPS to comply with provincial law.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter — not whether ShotSpotter works or not (even its critics will usually acknowledge that it does, in fact, report gunfire more reliably than people do), but how it will be used and on whom it will impose new burdens.

The expansion of new surveillance technologies would not necessarily place a burden on citizens and their Charter rights. ShotSpotter could, in theory, be used to effectively and conscientiously guide police forces to properly investigate crimes they’re currently ignoring or failing to prioritize.

But the history of the TPS and its relationship with minority communities don’t provide a lot of cause for hope on this front, which is why activists are already raising alarms about the use of ShotSpotter. Can a police force that loudly insisted on the necessity of carding predominantly non-white young men expect citizens to give them the benefit of the doubt?

It would be better for everyone if Shotspotter were being considered in the context of a serious debate over how and how best to use new technologies, instead of as part of a panicky election-season reaction to events. (The prior discussion about ShotSpotter in Toronto related primarily to fiscal savings in the police budget, which also isn’t encouraging from either a civil-liberties or community perspective.) As the first city in Canada to adopt this technology, Toronto should consider the issues seriously, should explore whether the company’s insistence on commercial secrecy can work in the context of federal and provincial law.

But instead, the city will consider the matter at a rushed, truncated debate in its last meeting before an election — and any hesitation or skepticism about spending millions to expand surveillance of Toronto residents will almost certainly be equated with a willingness to see more children die on city streets.

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