Security: Do crime alert apps build a culture of fear?
Citizen: Crowdsourced alerts
A crime-tracking app called Citizen recently recorded its 1 millionth download in New York City, said Olivia Carville in Bloomberg.com, feeding what critics call an out-of-control “neurosis.” The app monitors police scanners and “sends out alerts to users regarding incidents occurring within about a 1-mile radius of their smartphones.” In some cases—such as when Citizen users helped recover a kidnapped boy taken from a busy subway platform—it has lived up to its billing as a “people-powered public safety net.” But it has drawn controversy with a “frenetic pace” of postings, lack of context, and poor record of following up on false alarms. Amazon’s Ring home-security system has also “been accused of using fear to sell its doorbell cameras,” said Sean Hollister in TheVerge.com. One recent Ring marketing campaign on Facebook featured an image from surveillance video of a “suspected thief” breaking into a vehicle. Ring seems to be “promoting a culture where neighbors are encouraged to publicly suspect the worst about those they see through the lens.”
“Violent crime in the U.S. is at its lowest rate in decades,” said Sarah Lustbader in TheAppeal.org, “but you wouldn’t know it if you used one of the increasingly popular social media apps that stoke fears.” While neighborhood watches are nothing new, “the proliferation of smart homes, social media alerts, and doorbell cameras have scaled it up.” This can have consequences—especially with regard to racial profiling, said Eva Moore in the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier. There may soon be more “incidents of white people calling the cops on black people doing noncriminal things—cooking out in an Oakland park, selling water on a hot day, swimming in a pool.” Instead of making anyone safer, that actually erodes community relations and trust between neighbors and authorities.
Some of these apps can be useful for learning about community events and other local info, said Brian Chen in The New York Times. So can we use them without “succumbing to anxiety and paranoia?” Yes, but it’s better to look elsewhere for context. Neighbors, a free app from Amazon’s Ring unit, automatically shows a map of crimes committed in your neighborhood in the past 30 days. This “can unnecessarily give people the impression that their area was being swarmed by criminals.” I switched the app’s filter to highlight only crime postings from the last day, and the number dropped to zero. Alerts can also be problematic. “Do you really need a constant update on crime news?” Probably not. Treat the apps as you would other media. Don’t check them before bed, and disable the constant notifications. ■