New York

On Radio Show, Bratton Says Privacy Advocates Should ‘Get a Life’

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Commissioner Bill Bratton has some advice for people in the city who might have misgivings about the NYPD’s seemingly inexorable march toward a panoptic surveillance state: Quit bellyaching, you hippies.

Appearing on WABC radio’s Rita Cosby Show on Sunday, Bratton was asked about a new technology coming to New York City streets called ShotSpotter. Cosby noted that some privacy advocates had raised questions about the system, which uses microphones installed at various points across the city to listen for, and locate, gunfire in nearly real-time.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have said that the technology could pose privacy concerns, because while the microphones are designed to record gunshots, they have also been known to record conversations. And in at least two cases, those conversations ended up as evidence in criminal trials.

When Cosby asked Bratton what he thought about those concerns, as first reported on the Ben Swann blog, he was not exactly prepared for a thoughtful discussion:

The advocates have to get a life. 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 and move on to some other issue. We’re not out there eavesdropping on public conversations, I’ve got enough to do without doing that.

Bratton’s correct about one thing — recording conversations on the street is not what ShotSpotter is designed to do. But to say the technology isn’t “capable” of such a thing just isn’t true. In fact,it has already happened at least twice.

One can debate the privacy issues at play — the expectation of privacy on a public street is, of course, fairly low — but Bratton’s somewhat dismissive attitude also ignores the repeated, proven privacy violations the NYPD has engaged in in recent years. Need a refresher?

Aside from the cartoonishly-villainous-sounding “domain awareness system” that already watches much of Manhattan, as we learned in 2011, the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” embarked on an aggressive program of spying on Muslims in New York City after 9-11. Officers infiltrated mosques and Muslim student groups, and generally screwed with an entire community for years, seemingly for no reason other than their faith or ethnic background. They also lied about the program’s existence when it was exposed in a series of Associated Press articles, before disbanding it several years later.

Then there was the spying on liberal activists ahead of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

And we wrote an entire cover story about the surveillance of one liberal activist, and the way it roiled his life and relationships.

See also: Spy vs. Guy: What It’s Like to Be the Target of NYPD Surveillance

And that’s not to mention the department’s stop-and-frisk program, which infringed on the privacy rights of literally millions of New Yorkers, most of them people of color.

The point is, these are not exactly academic questions in New York City. So even if Bratton does think the privacy concerns about ShotSpotter are overblown, as a police commissioner looking to rebuild a relationship with the community, couldn’t he have taken a somewhat less aggressive tack with that particular question?

The “no-life” privacy advocates themselves are usually considerably more polite. When concerns were raised in Massachusetts after ShotSpotter technology picked up an apparently incriminating conversation, a local ACLU of Massachusetts official, Christopher Ott, told SouthCoastToday — in perfectly measured terms — that they just wanted a bit more information about how the technology works. “We’d just like to know more about what the technical aspects are,” Ott said.

So maybe privacy advocates should get a life. But perhaps in return, Bratton can take a Valium or something and be civil?

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