“Is NYC’s new gunshot detection system recording private conversations?” asks Fusion in a recent story about ShotSpotter, a sensor technology currently being set up in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

ShotSpotter sensors use microphone and satellite technology to detect, locate and report gunshots to police. Critics worry that the microphones are prone to false alarms, and more troubling, appear to vacuum up street-level conversations in the neighborhoods where they have been installed. Evidence from conversations recorded by ShotSpotter microphones has been used to prosecute criminals in court.

While questions linger for watchdog and privacy groups about the use of ShotSpotter technology, an aggressive lobbying campaign has helped ensure the devices have been deployed in over 90 cities across the country.

The Ferguson Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, boasts that it secured more than $7 million in federal funding to support the purchase of ShotSpotter. “TFG has conversations with interested communities and discusses process and assesses viability of request [sic], drafts and provides briefing sheets to communities and submits requests to their House and Senate delegation,” reads a case study posted on The Ferguson Group’s website.

ShotSpotter contracts with four D.C. lobbying shops, including the powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs and the Raben Group, the firm that helps orchestrate Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group closely aligned with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and various police unions across the country. The firm also has an array of local and state lobbyists on contract. In New York City, for instance, the company retained Greenberg Traurig in the past, and now works with a former aides to Sheldon Silver and Bloomberg through the firm Mercury Public Affairs.

The company’s approach is detailed in emails from Phil Dailly, southeast region sales director for ShotSpotter, to the City of Miami. Dailly references a supportive city resolution and lists viable funding mechanisms, including purchasing the technology through the Community Oriented Policing program, a special fund administered by the Department of Justice, or through police department asset forfeiture money, funds often raised through drug busts. Promotional materials also list the DOJ’s Justice Assistance Grant program, Public Housing Agencies and Community Benefit Funds as potential funding sources. The company retained two local lobbyists in Miami to help move the process along.

The company also maintains close ties with leading law enforcement officials. ShotSpotter’s senior vice president David Chipman is a former senior official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and former fellow to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Before returning to the New York Police Department as police commissioner, William J. Bratton served as a board member to ShotSpotter. (Bratton said he recused himself from the NYPD’s decision to embark on a pilot program in New York City this year.)

The company has downplayed privacy concerns. ShotSpotter vice president Lydia Barrett, asked about conversations recorded by the technology submitted as evidence in court, told South Coast Today that it is a “very unusual circumstance if (the sensors) actually picked up any voices,” adding that, “It’s an acoustic sensor. It’s not a microphone, and it’s only activated when a loud boom or bang happens.”

However, a WNYC investigation in 2013 found that 75 percent of the incidents reported by the company were false alarms, alerts in which audio recordings were made in which there was likely no crime in progress. ShotSpotter’s own privacy policy explains that it is constantly recording in order to be able to provide police with audio beginning two seconds before a gunshot and ending four seconds after.

ShotSpotter’s privacy policy claims this audio is “erased and overwritten” and “lost permanently” if its system does not sense a gunshot. However, even if this is true, the policy also states that ShotSpotter has detected and recorded “3 million incidents” over the past 10 years. This also indicates the sensors report a staggering level of false alarms, and that the company has permanently recorded 18 million seconds — in other words, 5,000 hours or approximately seven months — of audio. According to a promotional document emailed to Miami city officials by ShotSpotter’s sales team, the technology allows end users to retain this audio online for two years and offline for another five.

Photo: John Moore/Getty