Deep Dives

Absolutely Buzzing

Can you still hear the sound of the Blair era?

In 2005, on the quiet suburban streets of Merthyr Tydfil, a jarringly uncomfortable noise begun outside a shop. It was pulsing four times a second at a frequency intended only to be detected by young people – roughly those aged between 13 and 25. This was the ‘Mosquito’, a soon-to-be controversial sonic weapon and security device invented by Howard Stapleton, created with the intention of preventing young people from loitering.

Just a few days earlier, Stapleton’s daughter had walked to the shop and been harassed by a crew of teenage boys. Furious, he went to see the shopkeeper, who, in turn, knowing that he worked in security, asked Stapleton for assistance with what he described as an ongoing problem. Searching for a solution, he turned back to childhood.

‘As a kid, I did factory tours with my dad, who was the chairman of Eveready,’ Stapleton tells me. ‘They used a method called ultrasonic welding to adhere plastic components and torches together. I went into a room, aged 13 or 14, where they were using this technique and it cut right through me. It was horrendous.’

Stapleton returned home and, using an old electronic device called a 555 timer, perfected the prototype Mosquito by using his teenage children as guinea pigs. Days later, the man who describes himself as ‘academically useless but with a very odd head for remembering things’ installed the country’s first Mosquito outside the very same shop where his daughter had been pestered. A few years on, his weapon was in commercial use across the UK, outside fast food outlets, betting shops and the homes of NIMBYish curtain twitchers or legitimately exasperated citizens, whichever way you want to look at it. Stapleton estimates he’s now sold 10,000 units in the UK, retailing at around £500 each.

The Mosquito was designed in the mid-2000s, a time when moral panic about teenagers and delinquency was driven into Britain through both the media and state policy. In 2005, Kent’s Bluewater Shopping Centre made the decision to ban any customer from wearing a hoodie. This was also the decade of the ASBO, Tony Blair’s anti-­social behaviour deterrent that banned people, usually youngsters, from places they were deemed to be causing trouble.

Confronted with the Mosquito, teenagers around the world learned how to use it to their advantage, making it, according to Stapleton, ‘one of the most popular sounds in the world’. But it cost him untold millions: ‘If I’d obtained the royalties that I should have been paid, I’d have been living next to Mr Branson on a Virgin Island,’ he says. ‘As far as we can work out, a teenager went up to a store where they were running the Mosquito, recorded a 30-second clip, looped it and then put it out on social media.’ At one point, it was the most downloaded ringtone in history. This cultural moment is archived on YouTube in the form of pre-2010 videos titled things like ‘Mosquito Ringtone – The One Teachers Can’t Hear’. KFC also adapted the Mosquito, paying Stapleton a royalty fee to use the tone on an advert in America. The premise was that if you could identify where the tone appeared in their ad, you could go on their website and they’d send you a voucher. American prisons also approached him to use the Mosquito to develop a sound grenade to use when younger inmates were causing trouble, but ‘Mosquito had caused enough problems without stoking the fire to that extent,’ the inventor adds.

Howard Stapleton is a jovial, eccentric character on the phone, more than happy to talk about his product at length and also fiercely defensive of it – to be expected, since the Mosquito was met with strong opposition from the very beginning. In 2008, the civil rights group Liberty declared the weapon degrading and questioned the demographic-specific mechanism of the machine. ‘Imagine such a device applied to people of one race or gender and ask what position they would take,’ said Shami Chakrabarti, then a director at Liberty (now a peer). A campaign was launched in Corby called Buzz Off, one that had some success, as all devices in the local area were reportedly switched off and some major companies agreed to stop using them. Stapleton doesn’t think the criticism – that the Mosquito targets and demonises young people indiscriminately, irrespective of whether they’ve done anything wrong – is fair.

‘The point I always made is that if a Mosquito is being used, the kids can leave the area, walk away from it. It’s not Guantanamo Bay where they’re chained up in a steel container being played Teletubbies on a loop. They can simply walk away.’

Despite more than a decade’s worth of furores, the Mosquito is still buzzing in Britain but Stapleton says that 80% of his sales are overseas and that just a few weeks ago he had sold one to the Galapagos Islands. His educated guess is that there are now around 2,500 of the devices still in use in the UK and McDonald’s, among other companies, use them in car parks to stop teenagers loitering with intent in their Astra hatchbacks. When approached for comment, a McDonald’s press officer told me that ‘it’s not [something] we recommend our restaurants use’, although in 2017 a McDonald’s in Great Yarmouth came under fire for using one and a spokesperson said at the time it had ‘been in place for many years’.

After a long series of conversations with their inventor, I needed to find a Mosquito in the wild; this was potentially difficult, given that the device has specifically been designed to be out of earshot for people like me (I’m 36) and also because Stapleton wouldn’t give me specific locations of where they were.

I read speculation online that there was one installed in an unlikely place – the M&M’s store in Leicester Square. An establishment with a customer base that’s presumably made up of children, I was intrigued to know if a sonic weapon was hiding among the giant, anthropomorphic sweets. I rang twice, but the person on the other end hung up at the mention of the Mosquito each time. One staffer at The Fence, whose offices are nearby, offered to take a look. They asked a security guard, who said that ‘he couldn’t say anything about the security of the building’.

The following week, I visited London’s peanut mecca myself and a manager took my email. After several calls and emails, I can’t verify, as of yet, whether or not there is one at the M&M store, but Stapleton says that the device is ‘the top-shelf magazine of the security industry’ and secrecy is typical of Mosquito owners. ‘Lots of people buy them and lots of people use them,’ he says. ‘But very few people talk about it.’

Further lines of inquiry led me somewhere closer to home: the Aldi in Birkenhead. I parked up, and on approaching the supermarket I knew I’d found what I was looking for. A small metal device shaped like a potato waffle inside a cage, placed above a large banner with a Union Jack on it, and the slogan ‘Championing Great British Quality’. I stood underneath it but couldn’t hear anything. However, a man in his fifties told me that it was on, describing the sound as extremely irritating and uncomfortable, one that he has to walk quickly past. The fact that someone his age was impacted by it tallied with online testimonies I’d read, that the Mosquito could actually be heard by older people who, like many others affected, are just trying to go about their day.

When the Mosquito alarm was demoed on a 2020 episode of QI, the comments on a BBC Facebook page were littered with people over the age of 25 claiming they are disturbed by it. ‘I’m 40 and can hear it,’ says one. ‘Can’t believe it’s allowed to be used on the streets.’ Another says, ‘I can hear that and it is the most annoying sound ever. I’m 37, btw.’ A 61-year-old referred to its unpleasantness. The Mosquito’s claim that it works by ‘exploiting a medical condition called presbycusis – or more simply put, age-related hearing loss’, doesn’t seem iron-clad.

Stapleton also knows that, once bought, the device has the potential to be misused. Even though I couldn’t hear the one outside Aldi, I was informed that it was on. There was no sign of any kids hanging around, let alone causing trouble. Do people and companies just buy these things and leave them permanently buzzing? Sometimes, yes.

‘There is a house in my area that has a motion sensor Mosquito alarm that is on 24/7,’ says 23-year-old Amy from Epping. ‘It’s on the way to my friend’s house and when I first started walking past a few years back it would make me jump. It eventually got frustrating when I would forget it was there and accidentally walked down that street. I now take a different route to my friend’s house to avoid it.’

According to Stapleton, one man was reportedly having trouble with some kids in his area and used his Mosquito to deter them but left it on at all times, something that Stapleton says he disagrees with. The man said to him, ‘Well, they’ve given me ten years of hell, I’m gonna fucking give them ten back.’

Stapleton disagrees with people using the alarms in this way and is adamant that they should only be used as a last resort, rather than a permanent piece of hostile architecture. He says he’s worked with authorities to prevent people using them in this fashion.

At some point I wondered if Stapleton regretted inventing the Mosquito, as it all seemed like a lot of stress from the outside. ‘Yes, it has, at times, been a hassle,’ he says. ‘But over the last 15 years I have received a lot of thank yous, so no. Everyone likes a place in history – and I certainly achieved that.’

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