French town installs microphones in crime-ridden neighbourhood to listen for suspicious sounds

A French town is to bug the streets of a crime-ridden neighbourhood, installing audio surveillance devices to relay to police the sounds of attacks or muggings.

Saint Etienne in central France is about to install 50 microphones for a six-month trial period. Audio will be analysed by computers which will alert police to suspicious sounds such as cries or shouting. 

Police will be dispatched to the location of suspected crimes while other officers in a surveillance centre try to identify muggers or attackers using CCTV images. Once identified, police will then track and arrest the suspects.

The idea was inspired by a US system that uses microphones to detect gunshots in high-crime areas.

The French system will use American technology but will be more sophisticated, according to local authorities, as it will be programmed to alert police to a wider range of suspicious sounds. It will be tested in the Tarentaize-Beaubrun-Couriot district, which has a population of 7,000.

Some residents object to the trial, saying it will be a "Big Brother" system allowing the authorities to monitor everything they say or do.

Jean-Pierre Berger, a local councillor, said: “People should not be worried. We’re not going to spy on them.” 

Mr Berger said the aim was to create a “smart city” using different types of electronic data to manage infrastructure and resources more efficiently. “People’s well-being also depends on greater security,” he said.

Sébastien Valla, the head of Saint Etienne’s digital and information services, said: “The system will not be able to record conversations. It will only pick up alarming, abnormal sounds such as cries, breaking glass or attacks.”

Bernard Mallet, a pensioner who lives in the neighbourhood that is to be wired for sound, sees the system as a threat to civil liberties. 

“It’s an aberration,” he told Le Parisien newspaper. “I’m against surveillance. There are already too many cameras, and now there will be microphones too. I don’t think this is the right method to offer us more security. In my opinion what we need is more police, not ‘Big Brother.’”

Ahmad Draoui, owner of a sandwich shop, also expressed misgivings. “I don’t really believe that they won’t be recording conversations. This is disguised spying.”

Berkame Lachcene, a baker, favours the system. “I had the window of my shop broken,” he said. “If these microphones allow us greater peace of mind and to be informed as soon as something happens, it’s a good thing."  

The Saint-Etienne trial comes as Nice is testing a controversial facial recognition system. The city, hit by a terrorist attack in 2016 that killed 86 people, has more CCTV than anywhere else in France, with one camera for each 145 residents.

Christian Estrosi, the Right-wing mayor, is lobbying for the use of facial recognition systems to track everyone on France’s terror watch list. The government has so far not granted permission.

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