Privacy rights advocates and civil liberties campaigners in Europe are raising the alarm about a new surveillance system that monitors conversations in public.
The surveillance system, dubbed Sigard, has been installed in Dutch city centers, government offices and prisons, and a recent test-run of the technology in Coventry, England, has British civil rights experts worried that the right to privacy will disappear in efforts to fight street crime.
The system’s manufacturer, Sound Intelligence, says it works by detecting aggression in speech patterns.
“Ninety percent of all incidents involving physical aggression are preceded by verbal aggression,” the Sound Intelligence Web site says. “The ability to spot verbal aggression before it turns into a violent outbreak delivers valuable time to security personnel and enables speedy intervention.”
According to the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, the city of Coventry recently finished a six-month test run of the system, which involved the installation of seven microphones around a crime-prone nightlife district. A spokesperson for the city said the system is “no longer in use.”
The Herald in Scotland reported last month that the system has also been tested in London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester.
“In Hackney in London, the system detected up to six crimes a night, including fights and guns being fired,” the paper reported.
Sigard’s use is more widespread in the Netherlands, where the system’s manufacturer is located. According to the Sound Intelligence Web site, the system has been installed in Amsterdam’s train station, as well as police headquarters, and has also been installed inside a number of prisons and the city centers of Dordrecht and Groningen.
Sound Intelligence says that the technology focuses principally on tone of voice, and is not designed to listen to the content of conversations. But opponents say the technology is open to abuse.
“There can be no justification for giving councils or the police the capability to listen in on private conversations,” Dylan Sharpe of the UK’s Big Brother Watch told the Sunday Telegraph. “There is enormous potential for abuse, or a misheard word, causing unnecessary harm with this sort of intrusive and overbearing surveillance.”
In a sarcastic editorial, the Herald argued that crime could be eliminated altogether if the government were to install Sigard technology in all homes and offices.
LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s install surveillance cameras and microphones in every room of every new home that is built. Make it a condition of planning consent. … It wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just leave terrorists with no place to hide, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll expose criminals wherever theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re holed up or plotting. IsnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t this the logical extension of what is already happening, of what weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re allowing with barely a squeak of protest?
The police could be at the door, handcuffs at the ready, before a drunken man can punch his wife or say Ã¢â‚¬Å“domestic violenceÃ¢â‚¬Â. … Cameras in the home would eradicate child abuse. Burglary, too, would be obliterated since the thief would know the police had a ringside seat. Think of the benefits. Peace would reign in every household, the crime rate would plummet and prisons would no longer be overcrowded.