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Apps are turning people into snitches, experts say

It’s easier than ever to use your phone to report other people’s lawbreaking and, in some cases, even make money from the process.

A new smartphone app will allow members of the public to submit evidence of speeding drivers to police forces. New York City also lets you upload videos of idling trucks. But experts say that the growing number of such apps raises many ethical questions.

“Authorities have often also offered rewards for information regarding serious crimes and bad guys,” Mark Weinstein, a privacy expert, told Digital Trends in an interview. “But training our fellow citizens to spy on each other and report infractions as a common practice and means of generating income essentially turns our privacy-by-constitution democratic society into a tattletale authoritarian culture where respect and trust of each other are replaced with privacy=-infringing tattlers.”

Catching speeders

The app meant for use in the U.K., called Speedcam Anywhere, can also be used on tablets and is currently being tested by volunteers from the  nonprofit, which works for lower speed limits.

A screen capture of the Speedcam Anywhere app.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the U.K., uploading videos from in-car dash cams and cyclist headcams has been used for some years to report road crimes, and police have set up web portals to upload such videos.

Now Speedcam Anywhere allows the uploading of videos that report the speed of vehicles taken by a pedestrian using a smartphone. It is not the smartphone itself that measures the pace, but an AI analysis of the video and identification of video frames with timestamps.

Rod King, the founder of 20’s Plenty for Us, told Digital Trends in an interview that the use of the speeding app is similar to a member of the public witnessing someone trying to break into a house by smashing a window.

“I wonder what you would suggest a ‘good citizen’ would do,” he contended. “Walk on by and not get involved, apprehend the person involved, or report it to the police. I think most agree that a good and careful citizen would call the police.”

Tom McNamara, the head of Apex Privacy, a global privacy compliance firm, said in an interview that he disagreed with the app’s approach.

“Humans are private beings and need space,” he added. “A feeling of constant observation makes people act differently. Between smartphones tracking online behavior and a feeling of constantly being watched, it may have an impact on how people live their lives, and the outcome does not tend to be law-abiding citizens, more like suspicious and paranoid.”

Cash for catching polluters

New York City residents can make big bucks by reporting trucks idling illegally while making deliveries. The online citizen reporting program the NYC Department of Environmental Protection launched in 2019 is called the Citizens Air Complaint Program. The program allows ordinary New Yorkers to receive a monetary reward for their “enforcement efforts.”

Emissions from idling gasoline and diesel motor vehicle engines can cause health problems, including asthma, respiratory issues, and cardiovascular harm, according to the agency’s website.

Cars on the streets of New York City.
Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Citizens can reap the rewards by shooting a video showing a commercial vehicle idling for more than three minutes. They then log on to the city’s Idling Complaint System to file and track their complaint.

The fine for a first-time offender is $350, and more for repeat offenders. A 25-percent cut of the penalty is paid to the person who shot the video and filed the complaint.

Weinstein said he doesn’t question the regulation behind the program as “it seems reasonable and has good health benefits for the citizenry.”

But, Weinstein said, “if enforcement is so profitable as is in the case of the idling trucks for the citizen crime-busters, then to maintain the common goodwill and public trust of each other, the authorities ought to hire new employees to enforce the regulations.”

Kickstarter for cops

The new apps that allow the public to report violations are part of a massive data revolution, Evyatar Ben Artzi, the CEO of Darrow, a software company that scours the web for evidence of legal violations, told Digital Trends in an interview. He said that legal professionals, whether private law firms or state-run enforcement agencies, are starting to understand the need to harness data applications.

“Every day, countless violations take place, from cancer-causing air pollution to data breaches endangering sensitive information to defective medications causing irreversible damage — it’s near impossible to find them in the sea of data, let alone build a case around them,” Artzi said.

Legal scholars call this trend crowdsourcing violation data, which is sometimes used to track human rights violations. “It increases the possibility of getting caught committing a violation and therefore deters bad actors from doing wrong,” Artzi said. “This may bring justice in cases that would otherwise be disregarded.”

This has a chilling effect on the way we behave.

Artzi contends that while crowdsourcing violations can help keep big businesses in check and uphold human rights in civil disputes, it has substantial disadvantages when used to source criminal matters, in which the state is the prosecutor and individuals are usually the defendants.

“There is a huge imbalance of powers between the state and an individual defendant in a criminal case,” Artzi said. “Encouraging surveillance by fellow citizens in everyday life gives the state even more power over individuals and increases an already enormous power disparity in the criminal procedure.”

Crowdsourcing legal apps may create a “snitch culture,” where people stop thinking like individuals and start viewing themselves as the long arm of the state, Artzi said.

“This has a chilling effect on the way we behave. The feeling of being watched changes people and curtails freedom,” Artzi added.” And let’s not forget the American ideal of fair play: Using the public to crowdsource criminal violations may very well allow the state to bypass some of the procedural restrictions that criminal law has developed over the last 200 years.”

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Sascha Brodsky
Sascha Brodsky is a writer who focuses on consumer technologies and privacy issues for a broad range of outlets. He’s been…
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