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

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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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One night earlier this year, Hieu Vu and his fiancee left Oggi's Pizza and Brewing Company in Garden Grove, California, near Anaheim. After they got into their Camry, Vu saw he was headed into a DUI checkpoint at the intersection of Harbor and Chapman, one of dozens that southern California police set up each weekend night.

As they waited in the line of cars, Vu pulled out his cell phone and began recording. From that recording, we know that a police officer approached the car and asked Vu to roll down his window.

"I don't have to roll it down, do I?" Vu asked.
"Yes, you do have to roll it down!" the cop responded. "All the way. All the way. Thank you. What are you guys up to tonight?"
"I'm going home," Vu said.
"From where?" the cop shot back.
"Oggi's."
"Oggi's. Been drinking?"
"I don't have to say anything," Vu said.
"Ok, well, we're going to send you in there [the next level of the checkpoint] and they're going to talk to you," the police officer responded. "I smell alcohol."
"You smell alcohol on me? You really smell alcohol?" Vu retorted incredulously.
"I do," the cop said.

Vu sounds guilty, right? Why else wouldn't he want to roll down the window or talk to the police, we find ourselves asking. But we know that Vu hadn't had a drop of alcohol that night -- and a subsequent breathalyzer test found his blood alcohol content was 0.0 percent.

Rather, Vu is a criminal lawyer in southern California who has dealt with dozens of DUI cases and when he saw the opportunity to go through the checkpoint, he figured he could learn why all of his clients "consented" to various tests. It never made sense to him precisely how the cops got his clients to do things that were clearly against their own interests.

"Why is it that every client consents to doing a field sobriety test?" Vu said. "Every single report has them consenting to it. I wanted to find out for myself."

For Jones, this is precisely the kind of data point that he's looking for. Vu's story alone wouldn't persuade anyone that cops were doing something systematically wrong at DUI checkpoints, but imagine hundreds of encounters in which some set of police procedures are ignored or contravened. That would be the kind of dataset that could change the way the police in southern California conducted themselves.

There are a few barriers standing in the way of the success of the experiment. First, it takes a leap of faith in Jones to upload something to OpenWatch.net. Most simply, you're giving your recording of a confrontation with an authority figure to a 23-year old self-described hacker. Second, you need many, many people to use the app and upload their audio. Third, on the OpenWatch end, they've got to be able to sift through all that audio and find patterns. Fourth, in some states -- Massachusetts and Illinois among them -- it is illegal to use a recording device to document a police action.

But, Jones adds a bit mischievously, "I will absolutely take submissions from those states."

Image: OpenWatch.net.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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