Technology rarely invents new societal problems. Instead, it digitizes them, supersizes them, and allows them to balloon and duplicate at the speed of light. That’s exactly the problem we’ve seen with location-based, crowd-sourced “public safety” apps like Citizen.
These apps come in a wide spectrum—some let users connect with those around them by posting pictures, items for sale, or local tips. Others, however, focus exclusively on things and people that users see as “suspicious” or potentially hazardous. These alerts run the gamut from active crimes, or the aftermath of crimes, to generally anything a person interprets as helping to keep their community safe and informed about the dangers around them.
These apps are often designed with a goal of crowd-sourced surveillance, like a digital neighborhood watch. A way of turning the aggregate eyes (and phones) of the neighborhood into an early warning system. But instead, they often exacerbate the same dangers, biases, and problems that exist within policing. After all, the likely outcome to posting a suspicious sight to the app isn’t just to warn your neighbors—it’s to summon authorities to address the issue.
And even worse than incentivizing people to share their most paranoid thoughts and racial biases on a popular platform are the experimental new features constantly being rolled out by apps like Citizen. First, it was a private security force, available to be summoned at the touch of a button. Then, it was a service to help make it (theoretically) even easier to summon the police by giving users access to a 24/7 concierge service who will call the police for you. There are scenarios in which a tool like this might be useful—but to charge people for it, and more importantly, to make people think they will eventually need a service like this—adds to the idea that companies benefit from your fear.
These apps might seem like a helpful way to inform your neighbors if the mountain lion roaming your city was spotted in your neighborhood. But in practice they have been a cesspool of racial profiling, cop-calling, gatekeeping, and fear-spreading. Apps where a so-called “suspicious” person’s picture can be blasted out to a paranoid community, because someone with a smartphone thinks they don’t belong, are not helping people to “Connect and stay safe.” Instead, they promote public safety for some, at the expense of surveillance and harassment for others.