There’s a particular shopping area just off the Canterbury ring-road that I can’t help but associate with headaches. Attached to one of the buildings for a long time was a bit of kit called a Mosquito, which, like its natural namesake, had the sole purpose of annoying people. But not everyone. Just those who happened to be under 25.
Like something out of the fevered dreams of a youth-hating Frankenstein, the Mosquito creates a high-pitched irritating sound that takes advantage of the natural decline in humans’ hearing. If you’re under 25 then the only thing you can think about is getting out of the area. If you’re older, then you can carry on with your day oblivious to the auditory apocalypse that all the young people in the vicinity are being subject to.
As the product’s website tells us, the device is pitched at business owners looking to stop young people “hanging around in rowdy groups, littering, smoking and drinking, playing music and generally preventing you from enjoying your home or business.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an understanding of young people derived solely from reading the Daily Express. But sound, unlike the Express, doesn’t discriminate. Everyone under the age of 25 is affected, from choral students to Brownies.
Compound Security Services, the Welsh company that makes the Mosquito, proudly boasts that the device is 100 per cent legal, yet serious concerns have been raised about the human rights implications of this blanket approach to deterrence. Liberty, the human rights advocacy group, argues that the devices violate the European Convention on Human Rights, most notably Article 14, which prohibits discrimination.
Usage is hotly debated on a local level as well. A testimony on the Compound Security Services website from a member of Sheffield City Council Licensing Board, describes how in certain situations, the installation of such a device might be a mandatory condition of an alcohol licensing application. Yet in 2011, a 17-year-old led a successful campaign to get the device banned from council buildings.
Councillors in Kent also banned the use of the devices on council buildings after talking to their youth members. A branch of Co-op in Lancashire similarly got rid of the Mosquito on their property following a campaign by a 19-year-old autistic man. People with autism can be hypersensitive to noise and the National Autistic Society cited numerous reports of autistic people complaining of particularly adverse effects from the devices. Due to the over-25s’ immunity to the sound, the issue isn’t even on the radar of most people – and fighting it is left to those affected.
Now I wasn’t particularly affected by Canterbury’s Mosquito since it was protecting a Waitrose – which is a shop you only start to find interesting in your late twenties anyway. But the ethics of the devices remain highly dubious regardless of what they’re guarding, especially when those most affected are those often without much in terms of political clout. As it stands, anyone can buy them online and so they can be abused, like the couple in Suffolk who wanted to stop their neighbour’s children from playing in the garden.
In Ireland they’ve recently declared the devices a form of assault. The UK should follow suit. As Baroness Chakrabarti, who directed Liberty for many years, said: “What type of society uses a low-level sonic weapon on its children?” If you put it like that, banning it seems the obvious choice.