There were no telescreens, of course, but there was always the danger of concealed microphones by which your voice might be picked up and recognized; besides, it was not easy to make a journey by yourself without attracting attention. For distances of less than 100 kilometres it was not necessary to get your passport endorsed, but sometimes there were patrols hanging about the railway stations, who examined the papers of any Party member they found there and asked awkward questions. — George Orwell, 1984
Orwell’s grim depiction of a dystopian futuristic society in which the every movement of every person is meticulously scrutinized by the power of the state sometimes appears to have been used by American officials as an instruction manual over the past decade. More often than not, an idea similar to whatever the Department of Homeland Security has most recently proposed can be found within the pages of Orwell’s prescient novel.
Late last week, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service issued a request for information for microphones that are being considered for placement around Washington, D.C., to detect gunshots.
From the request:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) / United States Secret Service (USSS) is seeking information on commercially available gunshot detection technologies for fixed site surveillance applications. Typical coverage areas are expected to be from 10s to 100s of acres per site, located within urban areas. Due to the secure nature of these sites, a high gunshot detection rate (>95%) is strongly desired while daily, operational monitoring of the system by external parties is undesirable.
But, as Infowars pointed out in a recent report, similar sensors installed in cities throughout the Nation have been used not only to locate gunshots but also to record conversations.
The New York Times pointed out in May that gunshot sensors were actually used to listen to a loud street argument that resulted in a fatal shooting in New Bedford, Mass. While even the staunchest privacy advocates have had little problem with law enforcement using systems like these to pinpoint the location of urban gun violence, law enforcement did generally did not inform the public of the ability of the sensors to record conversations.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Jay Stanley began asking questions about the gunshot locators: “If the courts start allowing recordings of conversations picked up by these devices to be admitted as evidence, then it will provide an additional incentive to the police to install microphones in our public spaces, over and above what is justified by the level of effectiveness the technology proves to have in pinpointing gun shots.”
It is often noted that the United States is usually not far behind the United Kingdom in terms of police state surveillance measures, raising the prospect that the audio recording infrastructure being implemented now could give way to more blatantly Orwellian developments in the near future.
According to a report from Homeland Security News Wire in June 2010, some English cities already have installed devices that pick up suspicious sounds and conversations.
From the report:
Microphones that can detect aggression by the tone of someone’s voice were installed in Coventry, England, where they will cover an area blighted by drunken violence. The Coventry decision has raised the prospect of microphones coming to other cities in the United Kingdom.
The system, called Sigard, is able to direct CCTV cameras toward suspicious sounds, which can also be gunshots or the smashing of glass. Operators can then direct police straight to a confrontation, in the hope they can stop violence before it erupts.
The system was designed by mimicking the hearing processes of the human ear. It can filter out background noise. The microphones detect suspect sounds, including trigger words spoken at normal volumes as well as angry or panicked exchanges before they become violent.
For now, the 4th Amendment generally protects American citizens from being secretly recorded by law enforcement in conversations in which the officials are not involved. But the Constitution has been little more than a speed bump for legislators, law enforcement and busybodies promising ultimate security to Americans in return for privacy in America since 9/11.
In the quote at the beginning of this article, Orwell was writing about microphones hidden in rural areas. For now, Americans most likely only have to worry about them in urban city centers. But, as with other state surveillance measures, it’s likely only a matter of time until they are universally present.