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The downside to surveilling your neighbors

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In late August, a resident of Mobile, Ala., posted a video on Nextdoor, a social media app that advertises itself as a place for neighbors to connect. The clip, from a home security camera, showed a man—”Race- black Age- teenager or early 20s”—taking a leaf blower from the poster’s property.

“Let’s set up a sting and I will have my AK-47 ready for the next one,” a neighbor responded.

In the days before and after that post, Mobile residents discussed other suspicious activity on Nextdoor and similar apps. Some posters used barely coded racist language, others mentioned obtaining pistol permits in response to petty thefts or suggested firing warning shots at potential troublemakers.

In one post to Nextdoor, a Mobile resident said there were “dogs” going around ripping wiring out of trucks. “You mean like Snoop Dog?” a neighbor responded. “I think it was supposed to say dawgs,” a second said.

“They’ve never owned anything, never worked for their own money, have no home training and are just lowdown.… [S]care them by firing outside when they’re seen,” a third wrote.

Neighbors have always peered out their windows at each other and discussed passersby. But new surveillance technologies like Nextdoor, Ring cameras, civilian license plate readers, and crime reporting apps—which have quickly attracted police admiration—are fundamentally changing the dynamics of snooping on neighbors. And not necessarily for the best.

In Mobile, for instance, the police department has a full-time employee who spends a significant amount of time monitoring Nextdoor posts, Commander Kevin Levy told The Markup.

MPD has also entered a special law enforcement partnership with Amazon’s Ring and uses the associated Neighbors app to request footage.

“There’s so much more evidence that’s out there, digital evidence, that detectives have at their fingers,” Levy said. “As an agency, we encourage apps like that even though we know we’re going to get a bunch of false positives. That’s the risk you take, but I think otherwise you’re ignoring a really good resource.”

Mobile residents can get a discount on Ring surveillance cameras in exchange for registering their cameras with police. The MPD’s list of registered cameras—which includes many Ring devices but is not exclusive to them—has grown from just several hundred cameras when the program started in 2015 to more than 12,000 today, Levy said.

But the crowd-sourced safety platforms can also be rife with racism and threats of vigilantism.

Recently on Neighbors—an Amazon Ring–owned app similar to Nextdoor that can be directly connected to Ring security cameras—a Mobile resident posted a video of a Black man, whose face is barely visible, picking up a cardboard box from a front porch.

The post, titled “Theft,” includes a case ID and phone number for the Mobile Police Department. In the comments, Neighbors app users speculated about who the man was and where he lived. “I think he lives in the section of apartments in the rear on the right,” one user wrote. Another said, “I will be looking for him.”

Another Neighbors post from Mobile includes a video from a Ring camera showing a Black man walking across a piece of the poster’s front lawn. “Trespassing,” is all the poster wrote.

Ring declined to answer questions on the record. Nextdoor removed the posts mentioned in this story after The Markup inquired about them.

“Vigilantism and racism are not allowed on Nextdoor, and we rely on a combination of human and technological moderation capabilities to search for, identify and remove content and neighbors in violation of our community guidelines,” Jenny Mayfield, a spokesperson for the company, wrote in an email.

Jelani Drew-Davi, a campaign director at Kairos Fellowship, which is leading the Tech is not Neutral campaign against neighborhood surveillance tools, said the danger of community racism is compounded by the fact that Nextdoor, Ring, and similar services partner with police departments. Speculation about the identity of a person in a video or an accusation of trespassing might previously have been contained to a conversation among neighbors. Now, such comments are monitored by police.

In June 2020, Nextdoor removed a feature that allowed Nextdoor users to flag posts and send them directly to police. Government agencies are also now not allowed to scroll community news feeds from their official accounts, but police using private accounts can still monitor posts on the platform.

Amazon has aggressively marketed Ring with the help of law enforcement agencies and, as of January 2021, had partnerships with more than 1,700 departments. But the company recently changed its policies so that police must now request footage in public posts.

“These companies are actively going after police partnerships,” Drew-Davi said. “In the world that we live in, police are not good to marginalized communities.… Surveillance is not safety. Reports around suspicious neighbors or crime is oftentimes just a proxy for a Black or brown citizen.”

But even as concerns grow, so does the availability of new public safety technologies. Recently, neighborhood-owned automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) have become more common.

Flock Safety, one of the leaders in this area, claims that thousands of homeowners associations have purchased its systems to “automate their neighborhood watch.” Such scanners read license plates and check them against police and private databases, sending automatic alerts to police if a wanted car passes by. They can also upload license plates to police databases, creating a powerful tool for tracking drivers’ movements.

Flock markets its products specifically to homeowners associations, organizations rooted in segregation, that are still disproportionately White.

“It will make it a lot easier for homeowners and [homeowners associations] to track and harass BIPOC visitors and constantly treat anyone who looks different as a threat and to really ramp up the technology of exclusion,” said Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “These tools that are sold as supposedly creating safety: For millions of Americans, they’re viewed as creating a threat.”

Flock told The Markup that its system “is not intended to block anyone from entering a neighborhood.”

“Flock reduces the need for random traffic stops, by ensuring that officers will be notified if a vehicle is associated with a known wanted suspect or that vehicle is stolen,” Josh Thomas, Flock’s vice president of marketing, wrote in an emailed statement. “We send a near real-time alert to the nearest officer, a picture verifying the image of the vehicle, and the officer is expected to double-verify the data before making a stop.”

And then there’s the Citizen app, present in about 60 U.S. cities.

Citizen originally launched under the name Vigilante but rebranded after being banned from the Apple App Store for seemingly encouraging citizens to intervene in crimes. Its actions since then have not entirely assuaged fears that it is designed to encourage crowd-served justice.

Earlier this year, Citizen launched an internet manhunt by offering a $30,000 bounty for information leading to the arrest of a man suspected of starting a brush fire in California, but Citizen employees and users accused and publicly identified the wrong man, prompting the company to issue an apology.

“Citizen has strict validation protocols to limit the spread of misinformation and ensure safety. This was the first and only instance where these protocols were not followed and, unfortunately, an on-the-ground tip from an LAPD Sergeant was used in place of official confirmation from public safety agencies,” Citizen spokesperson Ebony Bowden wrote in an email to The Markup. She added that the company has “no plans to offer additional rewards to share at this time.”

In May, Citizen proposed starting a private police force. (It has since abandoned the plan.) And on Aug. 3 it launched Citizen Protect, a $19.99-per-month service that offers 24/7 access to “highly trained Protect Agents” who, among other functions, can send alerts about an incident involving a Protect customer to nearby Citizen users.

Bowden did not directly respond to a question asking whether Citizen encourages its users to respond to alerts generated by “Protect Agents.”

“The wisdom of the crowd becomes the tyranny of the crowd, and it’s enabled by technology,” Wayne Logan, a Florida State University law professor who has studied the effects of public safety technology, said. “One hundred years ago, if I put a finger on somebody and the pitchforks came out, it was limited. But now you’ve got the whole internet.”

This article by Todd Feathers was originally published on The Markup and was republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

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