I was likely not alone in being pretty surprised to learn last week that the city had opened a campaign of sonic warfare against loitering teens.
The story, from the now-WHYY-owned web news outlet Billy Penn, reported last week that Philadelphia officials had installed 30 mosquito sound machines at recreation centers and playgrounds around the city, including the Water Tower Recreation Center in Chestnut Hill. The devices emit a high-pitched noise that is intended to only be heard by people between the ages of 12 and 25. This is to keep away people deemed, in the view of city officials who began installing mosquito devices five years ago, troublemakers.
The city says the devices are only operational between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Recreation centers and parks are closed at those hours, and hanging out then is not permitted. So what’s the harm? If they work, the mosquitoes will drive off teens and save the police time and effort in patrolling the areas on foot. It’s a win-win.
Still, fending off area teens with sonic devices simply seems wrong. Ethical questions around age discrimination and doubts about the safety of the devices has led to them being banned in many places around the world. In the U.S., Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. are among the largest cities to have outlawed their use. In a CBS News story from 2008, the Massachusetts town of Great Barrington banned the devices after town residents complained when a movie theater owner installed one to drive away loitering teens.
One of the most compelling arguments against their use stems from what happens when private parties decide to use them. It’s one thing for a municipality to save money by monitoring public rec centers with the devices, but what if store owners start putting them in front of their shops? Or what if they become popular with homeowners who don’t like the parties thrown by their neighboring teens?
In that CBS story, a criminologist at Northeastern University, James Alan Fox, called the idea of private parties using the devices “dangerous.”
“There is a significant problem with giving people a tool like this and empowering the public to take over the tasks of law ” he told CBS. “It can certainly be used in a way that’s inappropriate, and without a doubt it will be.”
An example was uncovered in January this year by the Portland paper Street Roots, which reported that a 7-Eleven in a city neighborhood had installed a device in front of the store to drive away the homeless. The device was not a mosquito sound machine. It was something similar, but audible to a much wider age cohort than 12 to 25-year-olds. Portland officials told the paper that the 7-Eleven device was in violation of municipal noise ordinances and would need to come down, or the business would receive regular fines and citations.
From teen loitering to homelessness, “solving it” with a technological (if also crude) solution may seem like efficiency, but it’s at best a lazy and poor choice. At its worst, it’s unethical and immoral. Let’s just agree not to engage in sonic warfare with each other. Is that so hard?