Policing the Police: The Apps That Let You Spy on the Cops

Something like OpenWatch could help solve a major problem for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking

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After the recent Vancouver riots, it became clear that the world is surveiling itself at an unprecedented scale. Angry citizens gave police one million photos and 1,000 hours of video footage to help them track down the rioters. If we aren't living in a surveillance state run by the government, we're certainly conducting a huge surveillance experiment on each other. 

Which is what makes two new apps, CopRecorder and OpenWatch, and their Web component, OpenWatch.net, so interesting. They are the brainchildren of Rich Jones, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate who describes himself as "pretty much a hacker to the core." Flush with cash and time from a few successful forays into the app market, nine months ago Jones decided to devote some of his time to developing what he calls "a global participatory counter-surveillance project which uses cellular phones as a way of monitoring authority figures."

CopRecorder can record audio without indicating that it's doing so like the Voice Memos app does. It comes with a built-in uploader to OpenWatch, so that Jones can do "analysis" of the recording and scrub any personally identifying data before posting the audio. He said he receives between 50 and 100 submissions per day, with a really interesting encounter with an authority figure coming in about every day and a half.

To me, something like OpenWatch could help solve a major problem for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking. We've still got plenty of people who can bulldog an issue once it's been flagged, but there are fewer and fewer reporters with deep sourcing in a community, fewer and fewer reporters who have the time to look into a bunch of different things knowing that only one out of a hundred might turn into a big investigation. Perhaps providing better conduits for citizens to flag their own problems can drive down the cost of hard-hitting journalism and be part of the solution for keeping governments honest.

At first, the app did not have grand aspirations. Jones built it for some friends who'd gotten into some trouble with the law and who could have been aided by a recording of their interaction with law enforcement. But Jones' worldview began to seep into the project. Informed by Julian Assange's conception of "scientific journalism," Jones wanted to start collecting datapoints at the interface of citizens and authority figures.

"It's a new kind of journalism. When people think citizen media, right now they think amateur journalism ... I don't think that's revolutionary," Jones told me. "I don't think that's what the '90s cyberutopianists were dreaming of. I think the real value of citizen media will be collecting data."

Already, CopRecorder is in the hands of 50,000 users, who've just happened to stumble on the app one way or another. Jones hopes that they'll upload their encounters with authority figures so that he can start to build a database of what citizens' encounters are like in different places. Then, he figures, patterns will emerge and he'll be able to point out to the world exactly where the powerful are abusing their authority.

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