There is growing criticism of Philadelphia officials’ decision to install sonic devices called the Mosquito that constantly emit extremely loud, high-frequency noise from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every night designed to be audible only to persons aged 13 to 25, according to a Friday report by NPR’s Morning Edition.
The working principle behind the devices, produced by Vancouver-based Moving Sound Technologies (MST), is that older people cannot hear such high frequencies due to hearing loss from ageing and noise pollution, though that is far from universal. The Mosquito emits an awful sound in the 17.5 to 18.5 kilohertz range that is supposed to disperse potential troublemakers to at least 130 feet. It is supposedly inaudible to most people over 30; in 2005, the New York Times described an active Mosquito as like “someone had used anti-teenage spray around the entrance, the way you might spray your sofas to keep pets off,” adding those who could hear it said it is “extremely annoying”
According to a report from WPVI last month, there are now some 31 Mosquito devices in the city’s parks, with almost all of the facilities listed as playgrounds or recreation centers.
Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation department told WPVI that the devices, which cost $5,000 to install, are brought in at the request of community members, a district council leader, and in one case the police, and are intended to dissuade vandalism and disruptive gatherings. MST president Michael Gibson told Morning Edition the devices “move, non-confrontationally, youth from an area where they should not be” and prevent “graffiti [and] loitering.”
Some locals, however, are understandably less than happy about having loud noises blared at them whenever they pass one of the devices at night, while others have questioned how this could possibly be interpreted as anything but a form of discrimination.
One Philadelphia councilwoman, Helen Gym, has described them as sonic weapons and told Morning Edition, “In a city that is trying to address gun violence and safe spaces for young people, how dare we come up with ideas that are funded by taxpayer dollars that turn young people away from the very places that were created for them? ... I don’t think that this project is going to go any further until it meets with the full scrutiny of the public and that we have some serious attention paid to whether this is the best use of our money.”
“It almost is more like a feeling than a sound,” 27-year-old Mary Kate Riecks, a 27-year-old who says she can hear one installed at her local rec center, told the show. “It, like, kind of is in the back of your head. And it—at least for me, I get a headache if I’m near it for too long, so I usually skip around this block or, like, walk very quickly down it.”
“I feel like there’s a lot of older people that would be here at night, and I think they should be targeted as well because I see a lot of older people causing trouble in parks at night,” local Kate Sexton told WPVI.
“Wow, they must really hate teenagers,” 17-year-old West Philly resident Lamar Reed told local news site Billy Penn. “It does feel a little [discriminatory] against teens. It makes us feel like animals.”
The Council of Europe, a human rights monitoring organization that oversees the European Court of Human Rights, dubbed Mosquito devices in violation of international law banning “inhuman and degrading treatment” in 2010, adding that they were “neither politically acceptable nor consistent with the safeguard of fundamental human rights.” The council demanded that the UK remove thousands of such devices across the country, per the Guardian, after investigators determined “inflicting acoustic pain on young people and treating them as if they were unwanted birds or pests, is harmful [and] highly offensive.” The deployment of such devices has nonetheless continued in the UK, though a couple in Suffolk received fines for deploying an “Ultrasonic Teen Deterrent” outside their home in 2015.
The devices are increasingly popular in the U.S., but their use hasn’t gone unchallenged. In 2010, per NBC Washington, campaigners with the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA) filed an age discrimination complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights after one of the devices popped up at the Gallery Place Metro station following a reported brawl. MST voluntarily removed the device after being asked to do so by the council.
“I think that in many ways society is going in reverse on how we deal with our young people,” 28-year-old local Dave Moss, who said he could hear the device despite being outside its purported age range and joined with NYRA in the complaint, told NBC. “It used to be ‘seen and not heard,’ then it was not seen and not heard, and now it seems to be not seen, not heard, and must endure sonic warfare if they try to go outside.”
In Philadelphia, according to Morning Edition, Parks and Recreation officials defend their use of sonic repellents in parks and have plans to install two more in other city playgrounds. According to WPVI, the city says some of the devices have cameras installed in them as a plan to expand CCTV surveillance of Parks and Rec facilities beyond its current 60 percent rate.
“Parks and Rec takes holistic, community-focused approach to maintaining safe and welcoming environments for staff and residents,” Parks and Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup told WPVI. “Working in partnership with community members, advisory councils, friend groups, and local law enforcement, we take an individual approach to safety each site based on its needs.”