Do surveillance microphones help or hurt personal freedom?

A few weeks ago, we discussed video surveillance in urban spaces and the problems it poses. Today, technology is expanding the field of public safety. And, as a result, it now includes audio surveillance. If, in fact, any image capture of a crime serves as proof and can justify an arrest or conviction, audio should also be included in this process.


Audio surveillance on the radar screens of the judicial system

In France, we’ve been talking a lot abut surveillance microphones since the city of Saint-Étienne announced its decision to install them throughout its municipality. 

Jean-Pierre Berger, Housing Deputy, and Jean-Noël Cornut, Deputy Mayor in charge of Information and Communication Systems, have stated that they want to create a “smart city” through the use of connected objects.

This system of microphones installed in public spaces aims to ensure the safety of the Tarentaize-Beaubrun-Couriot district’s 7,000 residents in the city of Saint-Étienne. The Loire will also be the first department to test this concept, which is expected to last for six months.

However, Sébastien Valla, Director of Information Systems and Digital Technology for the city of Saint-Étienne, wants to reassure residents. He confirms that, in fact, the system doesn’t allow for the recording of conversations.

“These microphones will have the ability to detect, through algorithms, any suspicious noises, like accidents or gunshots. An automatic alert will then be sent to the authorities.”


Surveillance microphones in the business world

In the United States, it’s the opposite: the public space has not invaded, but the professional world has been. Walmart has already expressed its intent to implant microphones in their store’s checkout counters. This decision, far from welcomed, is not as controversial as one might think.

Some see it as an attempt, whether overt or covert, to “police” their employees. Walmart defends its decision by saying it simply wants to measure productivity. In use, the sensor can detect the number of beeps per minute, but can also record other sounds, such as employees’ conversations.

Ethical problems posed by audiosurveillance

Equipping yourself with surveillance microphones is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s the goal of measuring crowds, which allows for flow optimization. On the other hand, there’s the potential for misuse and the slow death of privacy in the professional sphere: a sphere where employees no longer have the latitude to act according to their own goodwill, but simply follow company rules as obedient employees, casting aside individuality and blending into the pool of workers.


As such, the real question remains: Are we ready to accept artificial intelligence and the evolution and intrusion of technology into security if it means losing our freedoms?

And are security needs and their resulting benefits reason enough to justify the continuous surveillance of the public and/or professional spheres?

Walmart has already patented its listening system. It will soon start being used in stores. Time will tell if this initiative will be emulated and will give other giant retailers the same idea.


To read: Safe City or surveillance city: when technology triggers debate!