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Aggression Detectors: What They Are, Who Uses Them, And Why

Sound Intelligence logo Like most people, you probably have not heard of "aggression detectors." What are these devices? Who makes them? Who uses these devices and why? What consumers are affected?

To answer these questions, ProPublica explained who makes the devices and why:

"In response to mass shootings, some schools and hospitals are installing microphones equipped with algorithms. The devices purport to identify stress and anger before violence erupts... By deploying surveillance technology in public spaces like hallways and cafeterias, device makers and school officials hope to anticipate and prevent everything from mass shootings to underage smoking... Besides Sound Intelligence, South Korea-based Hanwha Techwin, formerly part of Samsung, makes a similar “scream detection” product that’s been installed in American schools. U.K.-based Audio Analytic used to sell its aggression- and gunshot-detection software to customers in Europe and the United States... Sound Intelligence CEO Derek van der Vorst said security cameras made by Sweden-based Axis Communications account for 90% of the detector’s worldwide sales, with privately held Louroe making up the other 10%... Mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling, Louroe’s smoke-detector-sized microphones measure aggression on a scale from zero to one. Users choose threshold settings. Any time they’re exceeded for long enough, the detector alerts the facility’s security apparatus, either through an existing surveillance system or a text message pinpointing the microphone that picked up the sound..."

Louroe Electronics logo The microphone-equipped sensors have been installed in a variety of industries. The Sound Intelligence website listed prisons, schools, public transportation, banks, healthcare institutes, retail stores, public spaces, and more. Louroe Electronics' site included a similar list plus law enforcement.

The ProPublica article also discussed several key issues. First, sensor accuracy and its own tests:

"... ProPublica’s analysis, as well as the experiences of some U.S. schools and hospitals that have used Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector, suggest that it can be less than reliable. At the heart of the device is what the company calls a machine learning algorithm. Our research found that it tends to equate aggression with rough, strained noises in a relatively high pitch, like [a student's] coughing. A 1994 YouTube clip of abrasive-sounding comedian Gilbert Gottfried ("Is it hot in here or am I crazy?") set off the detector, which analyzes sound but doesn’t take words or meaning into account... Sound Intelligence and Louroe said they prefer whenever possible to fine-tune sensors at each new customer’s location over a period of days or weeks..."

Second, accuracy concerns:

"[Sound Intelligence CEO] Van der Vorst acknowledged that the detector is imperfect and confirmed our finding that it registers rougher tones as aggressive. He said he “guarantees 100%” that the system will at times misconstrue innocent behavior. But he’s more concerned about failing to catch indicators of violence, and he said the system gives schools and other facilities a much-needed early warning system..."

This is interesting and troubling. Sound Intelligence's position seems to suggest that it is okay for sensor to miss-identify innocent persons as aggressive in order to avoid failures to identify truly aggressive persons seeking to do harm. That sounds like the old saying: the ends justify the means. Not good. The harms against innocent persons matters, especially when they are young students.

Yesterday's blog post described a far better corporate approach. Based upon current inaccuracies and biases with the technology, a police body camera assembled an ethics board to help guide its decisions regarding the technology; and then followed that board's recommendations not to implement facial recognition in its devices. When the inaccuracies and biases are resolved, then it would implement facial recognition.

What ethics boards have Sound Intelligence, Louroe, and other aggression detector makers utilized?

Third, the use of aggression detectors raises the issue of notice. Are there physical postings on-site at schools, hospitals, healthcare facilities, and other locations? Notice seems appropriate, especially since almost all entities provide notice (e.g., terms of service, privacy policy) for visitors to their websites.

Fourth, privacy concerns:

"Although a Louroe spokesman said the detector doesn’t intrude on student privacy because it only captures sound patterns deemed aggressive, its microphones allow administrators to record, replay and store those snippets of conversation indefinitely..."

I encourage parents of school-age children to read the entire ProPublica article. Concerned parents may demand explanations by school officials about the surveillance activities and devices used within their children's schools. Teachers may also be concerned. Patients at healthcare facilities may also be concerned.

Concerned persons may seek answers to several issues:

  • The vendor selection process, which aggression detector devices were selected, and why
  • Evidence supporting the accuracy of aggression detectors used
  • The school's/hospital's policy, if it has one, covering surveillance devices; plus any posted notices
  • The treatment and rights of wrongly identified persons (e.g., students, patients,, visitors, staff) by aggression detector devices
  • Approaches by the vendor and school to improve device accuracy for both types of errors: a) wrongly identified persons, and b) failures to identify truly aggressive or threatening persons
  • How long the school and/or vendor archive recorded conversations
  • What persons have access to the archived recordings
  • The data security methods used by the school and by the vendor to prevent unauthorized access and abuse of archived recordings
  • All entities, by name, which the school and/or vendor share archived recordings with

What are your opinions of aggression detectors? Of device inaccuracy? Of the privacy concerns?

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