Trials and Error

Profiling in Your Pocket

Local sheriffs want you to use their app to point out potential terrorists. That’s a terrible idea.

Photo illustration by Slate. BlackBox Digital.
BlackBox Digital Witness is not yet a runaway hit.

Photo illustration by Slate. BlackBox Digital.

Last month, the National Sheriffs’ Association unveiled the latest update to its BlackBox Digital Witness app, which allows users to report suspicious activity to law enforcement: an anti-terrorism feature. The sheriffs’ association developed the feature with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Fusion Center Association after the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. According to the association’s executive director and CEO, Jonathan Thompson, the fight to stop “homegrown extremist[s] … requires we work with our citizens and provide them with new tools to help in the fight against crime and to protect their families and schools.”

The updated app sends another message as well: that sheriffs are authorizing profiling on an alarming scale.

When BlackBox first launched in 2013, it served primarily as an emergency alert system. Users could record videos of crimes in real time and notify their personal contacts if they were in immediate danger. While neighborhood watch groups used the app to monitor suspicious activity and see where incidents were frequently reported, the program did not alert local police. The version of the app released last month, however, gives users a direct line to law enforcement, allowing them to send participating agencies recordings of possible threats. Police officials can also use the app’s GPS feature to locate suspects and respond to reports of suspicious activity.

BlackBox Digital Witness is not yet a runaway hit. According to Edward Horcasitas, the app’s creator and a technical adviser to the sheriffs’ association, it has approximately 15,000 users who have recorded roughly 18,000 videos. While Horcasitas said users have reported a wide range of crimes, including domestic violence and aggravated robbery, the app’s online reviews mostly lay out hypothetical use cases. “Been watching a young man pick up and throw a beautiful Doberman puppy every day for the past few weeks. Now I can document his abuse and save this dog’s life,” wrote one user.

At least thus far, law enforcement agencies have been more excited than the general public about the app’s potential. After the latest version was released in May, nearly 70 agencies committed to using BlackBox Digital Witness. The sheriff of Florida’s Orange County told the Orlando Sentinel that the app will allow to users to “provide information to law enforcement so that we can mine the data and make a determination of whether or not it’s useful.” An officer using the tool in Muskogee, Oklahoma, told local reporters the app makes police officers safer because they can witness incidents as they happen. He also said it will make prosecution easier by providing video evidence to support a case. (Although he did not provide specifics, Horcasitas says he knows of several cases in California that have been prosecuted based on evidence provided via the app, including an animal abuse case.)

While the app itself represents a potentially dangerous incursion on civil liberties, what’s more disturbing is what it reveals about the priorities of the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Department of Homeland Security. National Sheriffs’ Association President Greg Champagne said in February that the organization agrees with Donald Trump’s approach to enhancing national security, particularly when it comes to clamping down on immigration. “We have to give our president the benefit of the doubt,” he said, pointing out that Trump was the first in “quite a while” to invite the association’s leadership to the White House.

The app’s new terrorism feature comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of Muslim Americans and immigrants, scrutiny that’s been sanctioned by President Trump, the Justice Department, and DHS. In that Orlando Sentinel story, the Orange County sheriff encouraged civilians to report on “individuals who indicate that they’ve been self radicalized by the way they communicate with others either through social media, emails or other communications [and] by their behaviors sometime in their neighborhoods [and] statements that they make.” This is a recipe for rampant profiling.

BlackBox urges its users to surveil anyone they consider a “terrorist,” a dangerously vague concept. Colloquially, government officials and media outlets use the term to describe Muslim extremists as opposed to white supremacists or mass shooters. DHS also now considers some Black Lives Matter protesters terrorists. Even if local agencies choose not to follow up on a report, the data is stored forever and can potentially be used to conduct long-term surveillance on anyone who’s considered a threat, not just people who exhibit dangerous behavior. According to an investigation by the Intercept, people who are mislabeled as terrorists may be added to a no-fly list or end up in jail. Family members and acquaintances are sometimes identified as possible terrorists by proxy. Even with such high stakes, Horcasitas says the app includes no built-in features to handle false reporting or abuse.

The BlackBox app is the latest iteration of the post-9/11 “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which started in New York City and has since been adopted by DHS and the Transportation Security Agency. Ten years after its adoption by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there was no indication that the campaign successfully derailed a terror threat. What we do know is that apps and websites for reporting crime and suspicious activity to law enforcement have consistently led to the profiling of marginalized communities.

Locals have used the French Quarter Task Force app in New Orleans to report suspicious people to law enforcement, which has sometimes devolved into criminalizing homeless people and people of color. In Washington, D.C.’s affluent, predominantly white Georgetown neighborhood, a local shoplifting prevention app became a mechanism for monitoring black shoppers. According to the Washington Post, around 70 percent of people flagged through the app were black, even though black residents make up less than 4 percent of Georgetown’s population. Research by Rutgers University professor Jerome Williams indicates black people are no more likely than whites to shoplift but are more likely to be reported to the authorities. Earlier this year, Wired also reported on a web portal called the Thin Blue Line Project, which was supposed to use GPS to track Muslim “threats.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it actually monitored harmless civilians, including mosque worshippers and Muslim student organizations.

Although the French Quarter app is still operational, the Thin Blue Line Project and the Georgetown app are both now defunct. While there is very little evidence that crowdsourced crime-fighting apps are effective, many police departments remain optimistic about their power to prevent criminal acts. If the growing support for BlackBox in the law enforcement community is any indication, anti-terrorism apps won’t be going away. In an era of heightened racism and surveillance, these tools seem more likely to ruin lives than to save them.