“Mobile Justice”? or Risky Vigilante Journalism?

camera+phone By Andrew H. Fuller

The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Oregon chapter and four other state chapters offer a smartphone app called Mobile Justice, which allows users to easily record interactions with the police. In addition to recording and transmitting footage, the app has a “Witness” button that sends out a user’s location to alert other Mobile Justice users in the area when they have been approached by the police. Once other Mobile Justice users have a user’s location, they can find that user and record their interaction with the police.

While this sort of Sousveillance activity is not unheard of—indeed, there are other apps that provide smartphone users with similar features—there are some serious concerns about these apps. Perhaps the most obvious concern is that a police officer may think that a user pulling out their phone to record is reaching for a weapon. In response to this concern, the ACLU of Oregon’s website for Mobile Justice has a portion of the page warning users on how to safely use the app.

Another serious concern is that the app may infringe on the data privacy of users. The ACLU posts the app’s privacy policy on their website. But the policy is complicated and may not be user-friendly. The privacy policy states that the ACLU of Oregon may “update [their] privacy policies and practices at any time.” Additionally, the ACLU of Oregon promises to only notify users of the changes through an update posted to their website, requiring users to seek out changes on their own.

Sousveillance has become a serious part of the ongoing dialogue about how best to manage and mediate the general populations’ interactions with the police. Mobile Justice is a product of growing public outrage over the police’s excessive use of force in interactions with communities, especially communities of color. This app, and the others like it, represent just one of several new tools or ideas for how to deal with what most see as a problem endemic to police. For further discussion of Sousveillance and the privacy concerns around this data, please see Naazaneen Hodjat’s piece “Police Body Cameras Spark Potential Privacy Issues.”

Although these tools allow us to record and transmits sensitive video and geolocation data of users’ interactions with the police, the Mobile Justice app, and apps like it, may pose a serious risk to users’ safety and privacy.

Image source: http://media2.govtech.com/images/770*1000/camera+phone.jpg.

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