National ban sought on sonic anti-loitering device aimed at young people: Queensland solicitor’s (Seymour-Dearness) success in having shopping centre stop using high-pitched ‘Mosquito’ drives push for it to be barred around the country.
A community legal service that forced a Queensland shopping centre to stop using a sonic “anti-loitering” device after its own workers complained of headaches and ringing ears has called for a nationwide ban. The shopping centre in Hervey Bay, a politically conservative coastal city known as the state’s retirement capital, claimed to be one of the first in Australia to install the “Mosquito”, which emits an irritating high-pitched tone aimed at people under 25.
The device – installed 10 years ago on the recommendation of police and operated at all hours without warning signs – gradually came to be associated by local youth with lasting “distressing ear ringing and pain”, according to the Taylor Street Community Legal Service. Melissa Seymour-Dearness, a solicitor, gathered multiple accounts of affected youths, including a 15-year-old supermarket worker who suffered headaches after passing it on the way to work, said it was a “textbook case” of unlawful discrimination.
The shopping centre owners recently agreed to remove the Mosquito after two years of pressure by Seymour-Dearness, who alerted anti-discrimination authorities to the case but stopped short of formal legal action. Seymour-Dearness wants the federal government to “recognise the discriminatory nature of these devices and investigate product safety with a view to entirely banning its use within Australia”.
Centre management originally told her that “young people were more likely to commit public nuisance and possibly crime and a device was therefore warranted to deter loitering and unwelcome behaviour previously experienced”, Seymour-Dearness said. The blanket effect of the device on young people who weren’t breaking the law violated the UN convention on rights of children and could constitute criminal assault, she argued.
“Usually when I mention it to people, it sounds like something out of a movie,” Seymour-Dearness said. “Initially when [the shopping centre] wrote back to me they said the purpose of it was to make it a more pleasant experience for everyone and that they didn’t accept that it was discriminatory in this context. But in terms of the law, it is definitely unlawful. It’s a textbook example of discrimination. It’s black and white.
“I would like to see an outright ban on them. Aside from the discriminatory effect and the direct physical harm that it causes, to me too the concern is that it’s reinforcing a negative stereotype of young people. “It’s demonising young people and I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think that’s the sort of society that any of us should have to live in.” Seymour-Dearness said she appreciated the shopping centre would have assumed the device was lawful when it was recommended by a police officer, whose details the centre had provided.
The British company selling the device confirmed that its 17.5khz tone was generally heard only by people under 25 – including infants – and that its range had a radius of 15 metres, Seymour-Dearness said. People had experienced pain and ringing ears for hours after leaving the device’s range, which included some shops and a bus stop routinely used by school students.
Young workers exposed to the device included a window cleaner Seymour-Dearness observed working directly beneath it. “Maybe I wouldn’t have found it so offensive if they had a sign up and it was only on outside business hours, but people literally had no idea,” she said.
The shopping centre told the lawyer it was one of the first in Australia to install the Mosquito and it was now used all over the country. A local council and businesses in the Western Australian city of Geraldton also sparked controversy when installing the device in 2012.
A Sydney council that played Barry Manilow songs to deter loitering in a beachside car park reportedly considered the Mosquito in 2008 even as the children’s commissioner for England called for a ban in the UK where it was invented.
But youth advocates in Queensland had not heard of its use and no other cases were raised when Seymour-Dearness was in touch with the Human Rights Commission and the Queensland Anti-Discrimination commission, Seymour-Dearness said. “They seem to be under the radar and I don’t know whether that’s because they’re not widespread or they’re there and people don’t know what’s giving them headaches so they don’t know to complain,” she said.
The Hervey Bay case was raised at an Australian Council of Human Rights Authorities meeting last November, prompting anti-discrimination authorities to press for an investigation by product safety regulators of the device’s effects on youths, people with disabilities and assistance animals. Seymour-Dearness said this may have influenced the Hervey Bay shopping centre’s decision, which pre-empted formal legal pursuit of a discrimination complaint.
A 2007 report on the Mosquito by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health could not certify the device as safe, and said it put small children and infants “especially at risk”. This was due to possible “lengthy exposure to the sound, because the adults themselves do not perceive the noise”. Its ultrasound effects went beyond hearing to “dizziness, headache, nausea and impairment”, although this was “not the limit of the total risks to safety and health”.
Buzz-off device raising concerns: An investigation has been triggered into controversial high-pitched anti-loitering alarms - known as mosquito devices - which are being used to repel and make young troublemakers and bogan types scatter from public places. The devices, legal in Australia and being used in at least Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, NSW and possibly Tasmania, emit an irritating high-frequency buzzing noise only heard by people aged between 13 to 24, according to its manufacturers.
Tasmania's Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Robin Banks, has spoken to the state's Consumer Affairs chief about her concerns, which are shared by commissioners throughout the country. The commissioners' concerns about the devices include "the unfair targeting of young people, the negative affect on young children and babies and their inability to effectively communicate their discomfort to an adult, a reported negative effect on people with certain disabilities, possible impact on assistance dogs and their ability to assist as required".
Security companies market the mosquito devices, such as the "Anti-Graffiti and Delinquency Alarm MK4", as "the most effective tool for dispersing groups of teenagers who regularly congregate in a location and behave in an anti-social manner". One such company, Q-Matrix Security Solutions (Aust), says the devices can prove more effective than the police. "If you have groups of teenagers regularly loitering near your property, causing criminal damage, putting off customers or even abusing customers and staff, then the Mosquito MK4 anti-loitering device is the most effective way to put an end to the problem without confrontation," the company advertises.
However, Ms Banks told Fairfax Media there were increasing concerns about the devices, invented in 2006 and used widely by councils and law enforcers in the UK, United States and Europe, especially now, given their growing popularity in Australia in public places including shopping centres, bus malls and foreshores. Use of the devices has led to civil court action overseas, including litigation between neighbours.
Examples on the mainland include the town of Geraldton, Western Australia, where locals complained in 2013 of discomfort, migraines, dizziness and nausea after the devices were installed by the council and local businesses; in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where an employee at a shopping centre recently complained of health problems after the technology was installed by centre management; and in NSW where State Rail used them to drive young people away from graffiti hotspots between 10pm and 4am.
Ms Banks said it was understood the devices were also deployed in the Northern Territory and possibly Tasmania. "It's (the noise) uncomfortable and it clearly affects young people and possibly babies," she said.. "The fact it affects all young people in a particular way is a problem."
Ms Banks said, aside from the largely untested health impacts, the devices discriminated against young people, adding that examples in WA had shown they simply shifted the anti-social behaviour to another location. "It's not a civically responsible way to deal with it," Ms Banks said. She said that by referring the matter to Consumer Affairs, there could be some investigation into whether the devices also affected babies and guide dogs. "My understanding is dogs have a different audible range to humans," she said. "Lots of products come onto the market without having to meet a certain standard. Nobody has ever really thought about it."
Ms Banks said Consumer Affairs and Trading in Tasmania were "keen to look at it", and the concerns would be discussed at a national level. A communique from a recent meeting of the Australia Council of Human Rights Authorities in Hobart noted that: "Authorities agreed to approach relevant consumer and product safety authorities to ask for the safety of these devices to be examined, with a particular focus on safety and health impacts on young people and other people in particular people with disabilities, and impact on assistance animals".