Mar 25, 2015 · 2 minutes

Earlier this month, the New York Police Department started using a tool called ShotSpotter in Brooklyn and the Bronx to determine where gunshots are fired.

The system was turned on as part of a pilot program "to make the city safer, to make our neighborhoods safer, to keep our officers safer," Mayor Bill de Blasio said when he announced that the ShotSpotter system was going to be tested.

Critics are worried that ShotSpotter will record more than gunshots. It's not like the system is only able to record gun shots; even though ShotSpotter says its sensors can't record quiet, street-level noises, that hasn't always been true.

As Fusion says in a report about the NYPD's ShotSpotter pilot program:

[ShotSpotter's] microphones have a history of not being as precise as the company claims. A 2013 WNYC investigation of ShotSpotter devices in Newark, NJ, found that 75 percent of the gunshot alerts had been for false alarms, meaning that audio clips were taken when there is likely no crime in progress. In those instances, police were still deployed to the area.

In the most recent case of a ShotSpotter voice recording being used in a criminal trial, the microphones picked up parts of a street argument just before a murder in New Bedford, Connecticut. 'No, Jason! No, Jason!' someone could be heard in the recording before shots were fired. Two men—Jason Denison and Jonathan Flores were arrested and convicted of the murder. Though other evidence was presented at trial, the audio recording was used to corroborate the witness testimony. There are legitimate concerns about having sensors placed around the city. But according to William Bratton, the NYPD's commissioner, people worried about ShotSpotter's rollout should "get a life."

Bratton made the comment on Rita Cosby's WABC show. He continued:

'We’re not out there eavesdropping. That’s not what the system does. That’s not what it’s designed to do. That’s not what it’s capable of. So get a life. Move on to some other issue. We’re not out there eavesdropping on public conversations. I got enough to do without doing that.'
Bratton might have a point, if ShotSpotter were 100 percent foolproof and never captured a conversation before a gun was fired, though even then it would be hard to convince people the sensors won't be used for other purposes.

But the system isn't perfect. It has recorded conversations -- albeit loud ones -- before a gun was fired. And given the rate at which new programs designed to "keep people safe" are revealed to invade the privacy of many, many people, it's strange that the NYPD's commissioner can't see why people might be worried.