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Tyler Lopez Headshot

Pocket Police to the Rescue

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You're walking home from a friend's house one night. Somewhere up ahead, a car window shatters. Through the darkness, you make out two burly men rummaging around in a car, taking a GPS and a laptop that someone left in the back seat. They start walking towards you, loot in hand. Fearless, you pull out your phone and point it towards them. You're the smartphone police, and they've been caught on camera.

While the situation above will never happen in real life, in an ideal world, your smartphone could be a crime deterrent. Keen to capitalize on such a dream, developers have recently come out with a range of 'personal security apps' that send data -- including your location and streaming video -- directly to law enforcement agencies. Used by state and local agencies, universities, and individuals, these apps are hailed as the future of law enforcement.

One app, See Something Send Something (S4), urges users to send geo-tagged suspicious activity reports to intelligence centers. Developed by My Mobile Witness (which sounds more like a smartphone edition of The Watchtower than a security app), S4 is already being used by law enforcement agencies in Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Users simply upload photos or videos, which are geo-tagged and sent to a command center, who can then analyze tips and plan emergency response, if needed. They can even issue geo-specific alerts to users in a defined perimeter.

Another app, EmergenSee, is touted as a potential safety solution in the wake of mass shootings at campuses across the United States. Rather than uploading data after they see it, users can connect to law enforcement with real-time video, audio and location updates in order to let them see what is happening.

So why should we be concerned? There's a lot to consider regarding personal security apps:

Distraction: While the app may help to document suspicious activity before a catastrophic event, it may only serve as a distraction as a dangerous scenario unfolds. During a tragedy like a mass shooting, pointing cameras towards an armed and unstable individual won't go very far in stopping them. The seconds it takes to open the app and begin streaming data may be better used scrambling to safety or helping those around you. This seems related similar to many storm-chasers who decide to take video of an approaching funnel cloud rather than take shelter. Somewhat disturbingly, the developers of EmergenSee are aware of the risk, explaining to users: "even if the user's phone is destroyed during an incident all the data transmitted to preset contacts, private or public safety partners is redundantly stored and archived in EmergenSee's secured servers." Creepy.

Profiling: by outsourcing surveillance to untrained citizens, police are effectively outsourcing one of their biggest concerns. Why profile an individual based on their race or ethnicity when you can have ordinary, biased citizens spy on them for you? Many minorities already face discrimination in public. Having a camera-wielding man follow you around Times Square simply because your daughter chooses to wear a hijab would be a new low. Will apps like See Something Send Something help supplement exacerbate irrational fears based on xenophobic beliefs? Will certain police departments use it as a new method of evidence gathering, freeing them from the risk of a lawsuit? On the other hand, this technology may empower victims of such discrimination. We're all familiar with the Trayvon Martin tragedy, when an overzealous George Zimmerman decided to take the law into his own hands. If this was recorded by either party in real-time, maybe we would have a better verdict, or -- better yet -- a nonfatal incident.

Privacy: by using the apps, you grant law enforcement agencies access to your camera and microphone. EmergenSee even offers "stealth mode" to users, allowing them to send data without any signs that the device is recording. Will this also fool the app's users? Furthermore, the app could be used to provide police with a handy narrative of all of your harmless -- yet illicit -- behavior. For a moment, imagine that obnoxious woman who lives in your building. Now read this testimonial from one EmergenSee user: "I feel safe just knowing that I can record any questionable activities / bad behavior that may arise! Awesome App!" Yikes. Party's over.

Anonymity: while See Something Send Something promises that "intelligence centers to engage citizens without tracking location or storing of personal information," it also provides analysts with "multiple sort & search criteria based upon time, date, location and mobile number." This data certainly sounds like personal information to me. Many tipsters prefer to remain anonymous, especially when speaking about neighborhood-based crimes that may involve organized crime or gang activity.

Do we really want to extend police surveillance to our smartphones? Are we watched enough each day outside of our homes, or do we want to have another one resting on our bedside table? Personal security apps do offer many innovative ways to monitor suspicious activities and crimes, and they may very well make the difference during a future scenario. They may also make the difference for that nosy neighbor across the street. But when the police do show up on your doorstep, never fear: last year, the ACLU unveiled a new app that helps users to keep an eye on the police.