By Anil Dawar
HIGH-powered spy microphones on street lampposts are being used by snooping council officials to listen in on private conversations.
A network of new “intelligent” listening devices which can monitor discussions has been deployed on Britain’s streets for the first time.
The so-called Sigard system has been tested in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Coventry. The microphones, connected to CCTV cameras, can recognise aggressive “trigger” words and sounds, then automatically direct cameras to zoom in on the speakers.
Manufacturers denied the system is used to record conversations.
It analyses sound patterns to pick out angry or distressed voices.
But the makers would not pledge that in the future Sigard would not be used to record whole sections of speech.
Privacy campaigners condemned the surveillance system, attacking it as another erosion of personal freedom.
News of the use of Sigard comes to light just days after around 200 cameras with number plate recognition software in Birmingham were mothballed when it emerged that they were being targeted at the city’s Asian districts.
Dylan Sharpe, from campaigners Big Brother Watch, said: “There can be no justification for giving councils or the police the capability to listen in on private conversations. There is enormous potential for abuse, or a misheard word, causing unnecessary harm with this sort of intrusive and overbearing surveillance.”
The Dutch inventors of the Sigard technology say the system is designed to help combat violent or anti-social behaviour by detecting threatening language.
Alerts can then be sent to police allowing them to stop minor problems flaring up into full-scale violence.
The microphones can listen in on conversations up to 100 yards away. The cameras then record both sound and images.
Manufacturers say Sigard can distinguish between distress calls, threatening behaviour and general shouting.
The system filters out background noise and focuses on suspect sounds.
Sigard systems are used widely in Holland, where 12 cities have fitted the microphones.
They are also in use on buses and trains.
In Coventry, the CV One partnership, funded by the city council, tested Sigard for six months by installing seven in the city’s nightclub district.