“It would take a gunshot…”

“… just to clear your head awhile” … goes the excellent but rather acerbic song by the late Kirsty MacColl. That’s how I sometimes feel about our UK policymakers – though I should make clear that I do not say that as a threat, and I in no way condone armed violence or the misuse of firearms. More about UK policymakers in a moment.

But first let’s take a quick detour to the West Midlands, where police, as part of their law enforcement strategy a few years ago decided (probably after a convincing sales pitch demonstrating its deployment in the US) to try out the ShotSpotter ballistic noise triangulation system. There’s a BBC article about the project here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28004190. How did it go?

Not well.

Apparently out of 1618 alerts generated by the system, only 2 were genuine firearm discharges. There were 1616 false positives (a failure rate of 99.876%) – but it gets worse: the system also failed to identify 4 genuine firearm discharges.

The police explain two of those away by pointing out that they were airgun shots – which is a rather “have your cake and eat it” attitude, since any airgun over 12ft/lbs in power is regulated as if it were a firearm.

The vendors explain the poor performance of the system by noting that the West Midlands police’s low budget led them to deploy far fewer sensors than they would have done under ‘normal circumstances’ (my quotes) – normal for a US metropolitan environment, that is. And there’s the first issue. Much as I appreciate the West Midlands police force’s wish to minimise gun crime, the figures for gun ownership, gun use and gun crime in the UK and US are in no sense equivalent. On that basis, the cost/benefit analysis that would justify a full ShotSpotter deployment is never going to translate effortlessly between the two countries… though, of course, there is the argument that any loss of human life to gun crime is worth paying to prevent.

The second issue is one mentioned in the BBC article I linked to, but never addressed. ShotSpotter is an audio recording system, and it’s on 24 hours a day. It records whatever the microphones pick up, including conversations. So, whatever the firearms-related benefit (and, as the pilot showed, those can be questionable), there is a serious privacy and civil liberties cost which is, basically, ignored. If you don’t find that unnerving, consider one of the other changes the company made, apparently as a result of the failed West Midlands pilot: data from the system is now passed to a control centre in the US for analysis. As the article puts it:

“SST staff now monitor all the sensors deployed worldwide through a central base in the US to confirm the cause of each explosion, rather than leaving such a judgement to local law enforcers on the ground”

With what we all now know about US law enforcement/intelligence data mining (especially of data relating to non-US citizens), and our own government’s current efforts to push through “emergency” data retention legislation in a one-day travesty of parliamentary process, that sounds to me like a recipe for disaster.

Regrettably, the political direction of travel, here and in the US, seems clear and uniform: more government collection and retention of data, with the law enforcement benefit (however minor) automatically outweighing the cost in terms of civil liberties and human rights.

Indeed, the current “DRIP” (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) legislation in the UK seems set to perform a dual purpose for the government: first, it will make it legal for them to carry on doing something which the European Court of Justice has ruled is incompatible with EU (and therefore UK) human rights legislation. That’s worrying.

Second, if the government’s data retention measures are then challenged under the Human Rights Act, it will (in their eyes, if no-one else’s) serve to illustrate why the UK should pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights and give primacy to some watered-down version of their own devising. And if we didn’t like the look of that, presumably they would just push it through in a one-day stitch-up just before parliament breaks for its holidays. That might sound cynical, but that is exactly what is happening with #DRIP, as the heads of all three major parties smile calmly and tell us we should just trust them.

The full verse from Kirsty MacColl:

“It would take a gunshot
Just to clear your head awhile
And after all this time
How can you stand there
Look at me and smile?”

The song is, appropriately enough, entitled “Innocence”.