Robert Price

Robert Price

The Bakersfield Police Department has a new hammer in its crime-fighting toolbox: digital ears that can detect gunshots, and noises that might be gunshots, with locational accuracy of within a few feet.

The BPD's ShotSpotter system, active since March 9, has already aided in the identification and apprehension of one homicide suspect. The system, which for now covers just a 3-square-mile area of east central Bakersfield, uses 70 dispersed, mounted sensors to triangulate sound waves and pinpoint their origin.

The company's Northern California incident review center decides if the noise is a gunshot or not and, if it is, notifies BPD — all in a matter of 45 seconds or less. The technology is getting good reviews, and it's catching on: Bakersfield joins 90 cities that use ShotSpotter.

Technology that helps police find and arrest people who fire guns illegally is without question a good thing — a godsend, in fact, in neighborhoods troubled by gun violence.

And it is a welcome innovation in the ongoing quest for effective surveillance in a country with a persistent gang presence, ever-lurking terrorism, more guns than people, and endless vulnerabilities.

I remember when surveillance was a bad word, a term that conjured up Orwellian repression. Do we still live with that fear? Should we? Or have the threats of this world, perceived and real, surpassed in importance our distrust of government and need for privacy?

Depends on who's prying, why and how.

At one extreme, there's this: Hackers almost surely have your personal information, possibly including passwords and credit card information. Yahoo (3 billion user accounts); Adult Friend Finder (412 million); eBay (145 million); Equifax (143 million); and Target stores (110 million) are among the many that have been victimized. Which means you probably have been too.

At the other end is Prism, the secretive government program that's involved in the large-scale collection of communications and transactions between millions of Americans.

Smile! Someone is watching us almost every time we're outside our homes (and, if we so choose, inside too). Powerful cameras attached to walls, ceilings, lampposts, traffic signals and building exteriors capture our activities every day. Smartphones relay our location and communications activities to cell towers. Cars record their speed and location. Satellites and drones watch us from the air. Internet service providers record our website visits. Retailers remember our purchases. Smart TVs know what we’re watching. Smart meters know when we've turned off the lights and gone to bed.

Twilight Zone scenarios of a generation ago don't seem as absurd as they once did. I just purchased an Amazon Alexa, which on my verbal command plays music, reads the news, lulls me to sleep at night, wakes me up in the morning and is capable of ordering my "smart"-enabled appliances to turn on and off. It's listening to me 24/7. Is anyone else?

Data storage no longer has the restrictions of the floppy-disc era; now it's almost endless. Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten, in a series of blog posts a decade ago, said the explosion of storage capacity would eventually prompt intelligence agencies to just collect all available data — all of it — because that’s easier than parsing what's worth keeping from what's not.

And we don't like it. A 2015 survey indicated Americans don't approve of widespread government surveillance: About 57 percent of U.S. citizens said it is unacceptable for their government to monitor their communications. Just two years earlier, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and Edward Snowden's leak of 1.7 million classified documents about surveillance programs, a Quinnipiac University poll of New Yorkers found strong support for the use of surveillance in public spaces — 82 percent to 14 percent.

The argument against widespread, pervasive surveillance is its potential for abuse. 

"In the abstract," President Obama said after the Snowden leak, "you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."

Says the government.

Can we expect President Trump to hew any closer to the rule of law? He just nominated the country's top spy — the director of the CIA — to be his new Secretary of State, and a top CIA lieutenant linked to alleged human rights abuses to run the CIA.

All of this might seem a big jump from the introduction of listening technology designed to catch people discharging guns in places they shouldn't. The local police department is going to put ShotSpotter to its intended use — protecting us. But, in this paranoid age of surveillance overload, it's worth noting that we're not just on camera  — somebody somewhere might be listening to us, too.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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