Toronto, ShotSpotter, and the normalization of surveillance

Samantha Burton
Jul 25, 2018 · 6 min read

Yesterday, Toronto City Council passed a motion that allocated $4 million to more than double the number of Toronto Police Service CCTV cameras and implement ShotSpotter technology, an American company that uses networks of “acoustic sensors” to detect and triangulate gunshots.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

A motion was raised to eliminate this funding, in response to public opposition from groups including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a coalition of Black community activists, scholars and artists.

City Council voted it down.

A motion was raised to require research into ShotSpotter’s effectiveness, consistency with privacy legislation, and other issues before committing funding.

City Council voted it down.

Toronto City Council votes for motion asking for a report on ShotSpotter before investment is made, via Matt Elliott

It concerns me deeply that Toronto’s City Council is willing to rush into increasing surveillance in our city, especially without first understanding whether a new technology complies with our laws — or if even it works.

In terms of effectiveness, what we do know is that according to Forbes “Police [in 7 US cities] were unable to find evidence of gunshots between 30%-70% of the time [ShotSpotter alerted them].” A 2016 investigation into ShotSpotter alerts in San Francisco also found that officers found no evidence of a shooting in two-thirds of instances over two and a half years.

In terms of compliance in a Canadian context, this is believed to be the first time ShotSpotter technology would be used in Canada and there is no analysis to date about whether it complies with our laws.

Toronto is my hometown, and this summer we have been torn by a frightening spike in gun violence that has caught over 300 people across the city in the crossfire. These incidents are tragic and troubling, and action is necessary.

But interventions that increase surveillance — especially unproven technologies like ShotSpotter — are the opposite of evidence-based decision making. This is reactionary policy making, and seems to stem from fear and PR priorities rather than the public interest.

My concern extends beyond the specific ShotSpotter technology. I’m worried that this sets a dangerous precedent that could open the door to more hasty, uninformed, and invasive moves towards increased surveillance in our city, in the name of public safety.

Torontonians who are already disproportionately surveilled and criminalized — Black people, Indigenous people, people of color — will be most impacted by these measures.

In a letter to Mayor Tory, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association warned that “if placed in poor or diverse neighbourhoods, the new technology may be an unconstitutional sucker punch to racialized communities of Toronto.”

Poor or diverse neighbourhoods are likely to be exactly where these new technologies will be used, if we draw from previous experience with initiatives like the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) and carding. Although the City Manager will be required to monitor the use and impact of ShotSpotter in at-risk communities and report back in early 2019, we don’t need to wait that long to anticipate what some of the most damaging outcomes could be.

The “sucker-punch” these policies deliver to marginalized communities is threefold:

1) Many members of these communities will feel less safe.

More police, CCTV cameras, and the ShotSpotter technology with its high error rate not only increase surveillance, but also the risk that residents of these communities will be subjected to unnecessary police investigations.

The feeling of heightened anxiety many racialized folks have around police is well founded: research on incidents of police use of force that were brought to the Ontario Special Investigations Unit between 2000–2006 found that “Black populations face a rate of violence by police that is more than five times that of the white population, and were subject to rampant and frequent abuse with little to no access to recourse” (Wotley 2006 in Manyard 2017).

2) Stereotypes that link racialized folks and criminality will be reinforced.

There is evidence of systemic discrimination throughout Canada’s justice system: people of colour are more likely to be arrested, detained pretrial, given steeper bail conditions, and sentenced more harshly. Increasing surveillance and enforcement in racialized communities plays directly into this trend.

3) The roots causes of violence will persist.

There are ongoing calls for Toronto to focus on prevention, for instance by treating violence as a public health issue and strengthening gun control.

While City Council did vote to invest in prevention-focused programs and call on the federal government to bolster gun laws, the focus on enforcement is disproportionate: if funding is provided, in 2018 just over $1 million will be spent on community initiatives, compared to $7.4 million for increased enforcement and surveillance.

One amendment that did pass at yesterday’s City Council meeting was a motion that asks the Toronto Police Services Board to consult with the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner before awarding the contract to ShotSpotter.

Motion for consultation with Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner about ShotSpotter, via Matt Elliott

While the intent behind this motion may be that the purchase would be stopped if the Privacy Commissioner identifies major issues, the loose wording allows plenty of room for interpretation. Yet, however slim it may be, this is still an opportunity for Toronto’s decision to invest in ShotSpotter to be reversed.

With this in mind, I’m calling on Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish to address the following questions in his review and recommend that Toronto not implement ShotSpotter in response to any concerns raised:

  • Might the use of ShotSpotter infringe on our rights under the Human Rights Code?
  • What are the risks and implications of audio being obtained without a warrant?
  • Who will own data collected by ShotSpotter?
  • Where will data collected by ShotSpotter be stored? How long will it be kept?
  • Who will have access to ShotSpotter data? How might this be impacted by where the data is stored? (eg. if the data resides on US servers, it can be accessed by US security agencies)
  • Will independent audits of ShotSpotter technology, data, and practices be possible — particularly given it is a private company?

I also urge the Commissioner to support the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in completing and submitting a legal risk analysis, as the organization requested only 10 days to do in a letter to Toronto’s City Council.

Lastly, although the motion doesn’t require any of the Privacy Commissioner’s findings or recommendations to be made public, I also urge the Commissioner make these publicly available.

I hope you’ll also join me sharing your concerns and questions about ShotSpotter with the Privacy Commissioner.

While we may not have been successful at influencing the outcome of yesterday’s City Council’s vote, the ShotSpotter proposal sparked a rapid outcry across the city — and forced Toronto to have a conversation that would not have happened otherwise.

It is vital that Torontonians, and all Canadians, continue work together to stop surveillance from being normalized in our cities. Together, we must push people in positions of power to acknowledge that emphasizing enforcement has disproportionate negative impacts on racialized communities, and to support approaches that address the complex, systemic issues that are so often at the root of violence.

Samantha Burton

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