By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
ABINGDON, England -- Jordan Webb can predict the exact time of day his head will start aching. If the 10-year-old lingers outside the Reynolds grocery store past 5 p.m., a small black device latched onto the storefront and operated on a timer will emit a high-pitched sound that makes the boy's skull feel like it's popping.
"It sounds like 'Eeeeeeeek' and gives me a big headache," said Jordan, who then covered his ears and made a face reminiscent of Macaulay Culkin's famous pose in the "Home Alone" movies.
Jordan is referring to the Mosquito, a $975 transmitter designed to disperse young loiterers by making a loud humming noise that most people older than 25, such as his 41-year-old mother, can't hear. The Mosquito has sparked a new sort of buzz in Britain, this time among political and civil rights groups that say the device is discriminatory and treats young people as second-class citizens.
Others have worried that the Mosquito is the next step in Britain's Big Brother society. Britons are among the most photographed, filmed, speed-checked and monitored people in the world, thanks to an interlocking system of computerized government devices.
Many Britons are deeply ambivalent about having a closed-circuit television camera in practically every public space; they appreciate the help in solving crime but worry that the government sometimes comes too close. A new high-tech device to shoo away teenagers like so many pesky squirrels strikes many the same way: a good idea with an unattractive flip side.
On a recent sunny afternoon in this historic town near Oxford, Jordan was kicking a soccer ball outside Reynolds with four other boys his age, all wearing red Manchester United jerseys. At 5 p.m., right on schedule, the grocery store's Mosquito began squealing. Jordan said he felt a painful "scratch" in his ear, and he hustled across the road to get out of the machine's 50-foot range.
The device has sold about 3,500 units in Britain since its introduction in 2006, according to inventor Howard Stapleton. Outside Britain, about 1,500 more have sold, including about 200 in the United States, by distributor Moving Sound Technology Inc., which says its U.S. clients are mainly schools and convenience stories. Schools use them to ward off kids at night, and the stores use them to discourage young loiterers, the distributor said.
The gadget exploits a peculiarity of aging. At a certain age, hair cells in the inner ear start to deteriorate and so does the ability to hear high pitches.
"I have spoken to young children across the country, and they are angry," said Al Aynsley-Green, the children's commissioner for England, who recently joined several civil rights groups to launch a campaign against the devices called Buzz Off. He has persuaded five stores to remove the units and plans to continue his quest for a total ban.
Aynsley-Green's counterpart in Scotland, Kathleen Marshall, started her campaign five months ago. "This is a war on young people," she said, noting that some of the slogans for the device -- such as "teen tormentor" -- did not go far in winning the hearts or minds of the teenagers who have told her through her Web site that they feel demonized.
Some young people have gotten back by using similar technology -- cellphone ring tones in those same high frequencies. Kids can hear them, parents and teachers often can't, thwarting many an effort to limit the phones' use.
If the Mosquito devices are shelved, it would be a dramatic reversal for a country that makes a lot of fuss over petty crime and antisocial behavior. A few of the British tabloids are running campaigns ("Broken Britain" in the Sun; "Can It! Stop Kids Boozing" in the Mirror) with reams of copy on loutish behavior.
This kind of talk remains popular politically. Since coming into power in 1997, the Labor Party government has dished out more than 10,000 Anti-Social Behavior Orders, a sort of restraining order that can be issued to children as young as 10 for causing "harassment, alarm or distress."
But even if the mood did shift, it would be unlikely that campaigners could squash the Mosquito quickly. For starters, the units, being inconspicuous and inaudible to many people, are difficult for campaigners to find.
Officials of the Mosquito's manufacturer, Compound Security Systems, said their clients range from corner stores to cemeteries to construction sites. But they said it's still difficult to know, because they can be heard only by young people. That's harder to detect than the more traditional Barry Manilow method of discouraging teenage loiterers by playing opera or other music that they consider unhip.
Several police officers have said during the recent furor that they are fans of the Mosquitoes. Officers in Merseyside, a county in the northwest of England, patrol the streets with what they call a mosquito vehicle that allows them to break up unruly groups with a high-pitched sound. An official with the force said it reduced disruptive behavior by 60 percent in some areas.
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 33,000 local shops, said retailers find it a "very useful tool" for combating vandalism and crime.
Rej Parshad, 53, has owned Reynolds, a grocery store nestled in a run-down mini-mall, for 20 years and said he has never seen anything quite as effective for dispersing young people. Two years ago, he affixed the box, which has a picture of a mosquito bug on it, a few feet above the entrance to his store.
He estimated that petty crime has decreased 80 percent. He balked at the idea that he was infringing on human rights. Youngsters loiter outside his shop and pester customers to buy them alcohol and cigarettes, he said.
"They harass customers, and I lose business," Parshad said. "You can't keep everybody happy. You have to look after the customer first."
Natalie Saunders, manager at Martin's Newsagent, a store three doors down from Reynolds, said she had no idea that a screech of about 85 decibels, the level of city traffic, filled the air outside for five hours every night. "I didn't even know it was here," she mused. She is 25.
When asked about the device, Laura Cook, 17, scrunched up her face and called it a "horrible thing" that didn't work particularly well because many teenagers just put up with it.
One woman who was happy to hear the buzzing: Cook's mother, Trina, 39. The only ambient noise she could hear on this particular evening was birds chirping nearby. But the other day she went into Reynolds and heard a "high-pitched whistle that cracks."
"I must be getting younger," she said with a laugh.