Aggression Detectors: Sacrificing Public Privacy Expectations for Public Safety?


A technology response to the ever-increasing mass shootings and violence affecting schools, financial institutions, and just about every public venue, has been surveillance.  Tech companies and leaders in audio monitoring systems, Sound Intelligence and Louroe Electronics, have created aggression detector surveillance technology systems as an alternative to typical video monitoring, in an attempt to get ahead of the epidemic.  

What Privacy is Lost With Aggression Detectors?

These new surveillance devices combine video and microphone technology with algorithms to purportedly detect sounds of stress and anger before escalation to outright violence.  Unlike typical cameras we’ve come to expect in most public places, this aggression detection surveillance is set up to monitor auditory interactions between people and perceive when a conversation is escalating to potential violence, triggering an alert.

These aggression detector devices are being set up to monitor children throughout school grounds, and used in hospitals, prisons, even stores.  As alerts sound, those monitoring the devices can review recorded audio/video, play back, and listen to snippets of conversations that triggered the alert.  While video cameras have become somewhat the norm in society, the recording of private conversations in public places has critics enraged with privacy concerns.

How Well Does Aggression Detection Surveillance Work?

One recent co-investigation by ProPublica and Wired found flaws in the aggression detector alerts, falsely triggered by non-aggressive sounds and failing to detect actual aggressive outbursts.  As this aggression detection technology advances, the algorithms may become better and more accurately able to detect the onset of potentially violent situations.

However, most public shootings and other violent acts affecting mass public safety are not born through an escalating conversation in a public forum.  Moreover, as ProPublica points out, such aggression detectors would not be able to identify “cold anger” which refers to a form of quiet aggression just as violent in impact as loud words.

As Technology Transforms, What Are the Legal Implications for Aggression Detectors?

Critics of the evolving aggression detection surveillance technology point to First Amendment implications, invasion of privacy, and the forced change in expectations of privacy in public spaces having private conversations.  Proponents utilizing the aggression detectors indicate a willingness to be proactive with technology in an effort to deter and mitigate violent outbreaks, even at the cost of privacy concerns.

States differ in privacy laws and audio recordation of people’s conversations, and federal law hasn’t addressed this topic on point. Organizations and private businesses interested in implementing surveillance technology and using aggression detectors or similar devices in their public spaces should consult counsel to discuss related privacy issues and legal concerns. Adequate privacy policies and consumer disclosures could help with consumer privacy expectations and help avoid potential future privacy claims.

Read about similar privacy concerns with other recordation devices using algorithms to detect key information:

Amazon’s New Wake-Word Patent Application Raises Privacy Concerns

Amazon Files New Patent to Detect Emotions

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