The Future

Uber but for snitching

A wealthy entrepreneur’s police app may reinforce structural and cultural biases when it comes to reporting people to the police.

There’s been a rash of recent incidents in which white people have called the cops on nonwhites for alleged “suspicious activity.” In April, the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black men who were then arrested for “defiant trespassing” while waiting for the rest of their party to arrive. In May, a black law student at Yale was awoken from a nap in a dorm common room by police after her white classmate called them to report her presence. In June, a white woman in San Francisco called the police on a black-eight year-old selling bottled water in front of her own home. And in July, cops were called in Northampton, MA on a black Smith College graduate student eating her lunch, who, according to a staff member, “seemed to be out of place.”

And now, it may become even easier for people to call the police over what they deem “suspicious activity.” A new smartphone app called the App Task Force launched in Louisiana and is purportedly designed to “help police agencies reduce criminal activity and improve community policing in their jurisdiction,” but it may only create more of these incidents of racial profiling. According to the app’s “about” section, citizens who have no police training can “download the app and use it to report suspicious and potentially criminal activity … in real time.” By making it easier to report such “suspicious and potentially criminal activity,” the App Task Force could not only streamline racial profiling of the people the users report, but also allows police to track the GPS coordinates of its users.

The App Task Force was developed by Sidney Torres, a New Orleans real-estate baron and minor reality TV figure. Torres debuted the app at a press conference in April with a free, three-month trial with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, located across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans (after the trial is up, the app will cost  $50,000 per year). At the press conference, Torres said that he aimed to “create technology to allow the police to have UBER-like policing.” St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith said that Torres’ product is “the future of technology” and filmed two television spots promoting it. Since its launch, the app has been downloaded approximately 13,000 times and has generated 142 calls to police, according to the sheriff’s office.

The app has multiple capabilities. It allows users to report alleged crimes and “suspicious activity” and include information such as pictures and GPS coordinates directly to law enforcement. Additionally, it has a crisis button that allows registered users (who give their name and phone number to the police) to be tracked by cops in extreme situations, like an active shooting or kidnapping.

Technologies that share civilian tips with law enforcement have had their issues in the past. For example, Nextdoor, an app that allows neighbors to communicate about problems and events in their area, had its own racial profiling snafus. In one case, a white party host put the wrong address on an invitation, and her neighbors posted on Nextdoor about “scary sketchy” black people who were simply looking for their friend’s house. Nextdoor tried to address its racial profiling problem with a policy change and algorithmic tweak; nine months later, BuzzFeedreported that the company had yet to offer the anti-racial-profiling feature. Vigilante, an app that crowdsourced videos of “suspicious activity” in real time, was pulled from Apple’s App Store (only to be rebranded as “Citizen”) after police said it would interfere with their work.

The App Task Force doesn’t have a policy or a system that addresses racial profiling. Torres’ company and Buisson Creative, the third party who developed the software, didn’t respond to questions from The Outline about how the app addresses racial profiling or user privacy. Deputy Meredith Timerlake, on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office, responding to whether there are safeguards against racial profiling, said, “We don't control the actions of app users.”

Experts who are familiar with the intersection of policing and technology that The Outline spoke to had concerns that an app like this could facilitate racial profiling. “I think in general apps like this are not taking into consideration racial bias within communities or within the police force,” said Jackie Zammuto, the U.S. program manager at Witness, a group that trains people on how to document human rights abuses by state agencies (like police departments) safely and effectively. “So when they say ‘report suspicious behavior,’ that’s a super vague term, and when you leave it open to interpretation without critically thinking or understanding racism and classism permeate all these aspects of our society, it can really have deadly consequences,” Zammuto said.

Kade Crockford, who runs the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty project in Massachusetts ,says that programs like App Task Force can make it harder, not easier, for police to effectively do their jobs. “Law enforcement officials in some parts of the country have actually complained about a persistent problem, which is white people calling the police on black people merely for existing near them,” they said. A 2011 study of suspicious activity reports by NPR found that the Mall of America’s “counterterrorism” program mostly ID’ed minorities in Minnesota, which is 85 percent white — just like St. Tammany Parish. “They found that not a single report led to any discovery of any criminal activity or terrorism or anything like that,” Crockford said of the study. “But that people routinely reported people they perceived to be Muslim simply existing in the mall.”

There’s still a gap between App Task Force’s purported goal and who gets held accountable by the technology. “While apps like this purport to promote transparency and accountability, they encourage policing based on peoples' fears and stereotypes,” said Zammuto. “They also do nothing to address the lack of transparency we see from police departments, especially around officer misconduct and complaints. In many states public access to this information is very limited, especially New York and California.” Both Zammuto and Crockford cited the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot in his own backyard after police received reports of vehicle break-ins in his Sacramento neighborhood, as an incident that demonstrates the flaws of policing base on civilian tips.

And while we’ve seen how imperfect citizen policing can be when filtered through a smartphone, it’s not a new concept. Joshua Reeves, a professor at Oregon State University and author of the 2017 book Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, says that programs that encourage people to report crimes directly to law enforcement have existed since Colonial America and serve an ideological function. “In more and more of our everyday lives, we’re being asked to think and act like cops,” Reeves said, and efforts like the App Task Force blur the relationship between tattling and citizenship. “Not only does this mean that we tend to begin looking at those around us through a suspicious lens, but it also means that we in some ways learn to conflate good citizenship with vigilance and snitching.”

Torres created the App Task Force as an evolution of his private auxiliary police “start up” called The French Quarter Task Force, which hires off-duty cops to respond to civilian tips. The same sales pitch — “Uber for cops” — was used then as well. (Before that, Torres started a garbage hauling company that raked in millions in contracts after Hurricane Katrina.) The connecting thread between Torres’ various businesses is their reliance on GPS technology. With both his hauling company and police start-up, Torres was known for tracking his employees via GPS and reprimanding them if they slacked off.

In order to use the App Task Force, users are required to enable location tracking, which can reveal very sensitive user information to developers and the police. “It can show whether you worship [or] whether you’re having an affair,” Crockford said. Given that law enforcement has access to (at least some of) this information, Crockford worried that law enforcement agencies could track app users without any checks on their power. Torres said at the press conference announcing the app that the GPS tracking feature in App Task Force design was designed to locate users even during a hostage or active shooter situation.

App Task Force might be less problematic if it gave its users the option to report incidents anonymously, but it doesn’t. “Not having the ability to report something anonymously could be a problem for some people,” said Zammuto. Certain people wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to police as a witness, potentially for fear of retaliation, she said, like people who have sensitive immigration statuses and are already targeted by the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Department. (In an email to The Outline, Deputy Timberlake said the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office collaborates with ICE “in a number of different capacities,” and received a federal grant to combat “illegal immigration” and other high profile crimes.)

Further, by offering App Task Force to St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office for free, Torres has become part of a troubling pattern of wealthy people providing technology to police departments. In Baltimore, philanthropists John and Laura Arnold donated a police surveillance blimp to the city’s police department, and Peter Thiel’s Palantir has donated software to New Orleans police departments through a foundation, without a public process. These “philanthropic” arrangements allow wealthy donors to dictate how the police interact with the public.

Another concerning element of a Louisiana Sheriff’s Office using a technology like this is the structure of the Louisiana's carceral system. The state has the second highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, in part because local sheriffs get $25-per-day kickbacks for every person they lock up. Therefore local economies, as The Times-Picayune pointed out, are dependent on keeping jails full. And likewise, Louisiana’s Sheriff’s lobby — one of the most powerful in the state — has been aggressive in maintaining high incarceration rates. Torres’ App Task Force functions as another cog in this system.

Beyond the lack of a privacy policy, GPS tracking, and potential for misuse and racial profiling, Crockford said the app had one more problem. “It’s kind of just a stupid idea, they’re just going to get a bunch of junk that’s going to waste their time.”

Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.