Apps turn people into snitches, say experts

It’s easier than ever to use your phone to report other people’s violations and, in some cases, even earn money through the process.

A new smartphone app will allow members of the public to submit evidence of speeding to police. New York City also lets you download slow motion truck videos. But experts say the growing number of such apps raises many ethical questions.

“Authorities have often also offered rewards for information about serious crimes and villains,” Mark Weinstein, a privacy expert, told Digital Trends in an interview. “But training our fellow citizens to spy on each other and report offenses as a common practice and a means of generating revenue essentially transforms our democratic society based on secrecy into an authoritarian culture where respect and trust for one another towards others are replaced by privacy = – gossips in violation. »

Catch speeders

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

In the UK, the uploading of videos from dash cams and head-mounted cameras of cyclists has been used for some years to report traffic offences, and the police have set up web portals to upload such videos .

Speedcam Anywhere now makes it possible to upload videos that show the speed of vehicles taken by a pedestrian using a smartphone. It is not the smartphone itself that measures the beat, but an AI analysis of the video and the identification of video frames with timestamps.

Rod King, the founder of 20’s Plenty for Us, told Digital Trends in an interview that using the speeding app is similar to a member of the public seeing someone try to break into a house. breaking a window.

“I wonder what you would suggest a ‘good citizen’ would do,” he said. “Pass by and don’t get involved, apprehend the person involved or report it to the police. I think most agree that a good and prudent citizen would call the police.

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

“Humans are private beings and need space,” he added. “A sense of constant observation makes people act differently. Between smartphones tracking online behavior and feelings of being constantly watched, it can impact how people live their lives, and the result doesn’t tend to be law-abiding citizens, rather suspicious and paranoid.

Money to catch the polluters

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

According to the agency’s website, emissions from gasoline and diesel engines from idling motor vehicles can cause health problems, including asthma, respiratory problems and cardiovascular damage.

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

Citizens can reap the rewards by filming a video showing a commercial vehicle idling for more than three minutes. They then log into 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% reduction in the penalty is paid to the person who shot the video and filed the complaint.

Weinstein said he doesn’t question the regulations behind the program because “it seems reasonable and has good health benefits for citizens.”

But, Weinstein said, “if law enforcement is so profitable as idle trucks for citizens anti-crime, then to maintain common goodwill and public trust in one another, the authorities should hire new employees to enforce the regulations.”

Kickstarter for cops

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

“Every day, countless breaches take place, from carcinogenic air pollution to data breaches putting sensitive information at risk to faulty drugs causing irreversible damage – it is almost impossible to find them in the sea of ​​​​data, let alone build a case around them,” Artzi mentioned.

Lawyers call this trend the crowdsourcing of 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 harm,” Artzi said. “It can bring justice to cases that would otherwise be ignored.”

It has a chilling effect on the way we behave.

Artzi argues that while crowdsourcing violations can help control big business and enforce human rights in civil litigation, they have substantial downsides when used to source criminal cases, in which the State is the prosecutor and individuals are usually the defendants.

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

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

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

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