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We are listeningto you! City lamppost microphones can pick up conversations.

Byline: NEIL ELKES

A MIDLAND city council has tested a controversial covert surveillance system on its streets which not only records people's movements - but tapes their conversations, too.

Campaigners have blasted local authority groups in Birmingham who have erected counter terrorism cameras in areas with large Muslim communities.

The CCTV equipment, including automatic number plate recognition systems, has been hidden in lampposts around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath.

But it was greeted with a huge backlash from residents and local politicians, and it has not been used.

Now it has emerged that neighbouring Coventry City Council, has road tested a system called Sigard, which can monitor conversations and detect threatening language. Privacy campaigners have warned this is a dangerous development which could restrict Midlanders' freedom.

Dylan Sharpe, from 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." Boffins behind the Sigard technology, imported from Holland, claim the system can sense when anti-social behaviour and violence is brewing by detecting threatening language.

They say alerts are then sent to police, nightclub bouncers or shop security staff, which allow them to nip trouble in the bud before arguments spiral into violence.

Sound They say the cameras record both sound and images, and can distinguish between distress calls, threatening behaviour and general shouting.

The Sigard system, produced by Sound Intelligence, is being used in Dutch prisons, city centres and Amsterdam's Central Rail Station.

The Coventry City Council funded CV1 partnership con-firmed they had tested Sigard for six months and installed seven devices in the nightlife area on the High Street.

Several privacy campaign groups have claimed that authorities in Birmingham have also tested the Sigard surveillance system. But the city has hotly denied using it.

A CV1 spokesman said: "We had the system for six months. It is no longer in use."

No-one from the organisation was available to comment on whether the trial was a success.

The new Coalition Government has announced a review of the use of CCTV with a pledge to tilt the balance away from snooping by the authorities to defend civil liberties.

Protective hoods and 'cameras not in use' signs have been fixed to the 218 counter terrorism cameras in Birmingham.

They were installed by the Safer Birmingham Partnership, which includes the police and council, who agreed not to use them following mass protests.

A Birmingham Against Spy Cameras rally is being held on the issue at the Bordesley Centre from 4pm today. Speakers will include Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty.

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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jul 4, 2010
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