New smartphone app ushers in the digital age of citizen spying

By End the Lie

The icon for West Virginia's Suspicious Activity Reporting application (Image credit: Apple App Store/NICUSA)

The West Virginia Department of Homeland Security released an app for mobile phones they have called the “Suspicious Activity Reporting” application.

This application will allow for citizens to report “suspicious persons” more easily than ever before, ushering in the digital age of citizen spying, a thought which would make Stalin and those like him drool with envy.

The new application was recently unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security’s branch in West Virginia in concert with the office of the governor of West Virginia and if it is successful it could likely see a much wider distribution.

“With the assistance of our citizens, important information can quickly get into the hands of our law enforcement community allowing them to provide better protection,” Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said in an official statement.

The app can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or the Android Market and is quite simple in its functionality, although it is not the first.

Indeed, last year, the homeland security branch in Kentucky launched their “Eyes and Ears on Kentucky” app for the iPhone.

This trend of digitizing the practice of citizen spying might prove much more effective than previous campaigns like the “see something, say something” effort launched by the Department of Homeland Security.

I believe that this will prove more effective in terms of intelligence gathering because people might be more ready to anonymously submit a picture through an iPhone app than they are to pick up the phone and call a hotline to report something.

Less effort means it is much more likely that people will report activities, no matter how innocuous they might actually be.

When opening the app, it tells you that you should dial 911 if there is an actual emergency, then prompts you to provide your geolocation information.

The app is little more than a camera with the ability to annotate the image with date and location, which is only necessary if you don’t give permission to add it automatically.

It also allows the user to add more specific information like the target’s gender, eye color, name, hair style, pertinent vehicle information and more.

The application allows for users to choose to give their personal information when submitting the report or it gives them the choice to do it anonymously.

This creates a problem for me, and many others who value privacy and accountability, as an angry neighbor or just about anyone else could maliciously file a false report to get the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or their allied agencies to harass an innocent person.

This total lack of accountability would allow any individual to put another person in the sights of the DHS, even if they are doing nothing wrong or even suspicious.

After all, our government thinks that just about everything is an indicator of possible terrorist activity. By the definitions put out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ), citizens should take pictures of and report everyone who pays with cash, uses proxies, changes their hair color, or shaves their beard.

Once the user clicks the “Submit Report” button in the app, the picture and accompanying information gets sent to the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center.

This fusion center is one of many across the United States which brings together state law enforcement and the DHS, along with many other federal agencies, to collect information and engage in what amounts to a large-scale domestic spying operation.

“The longer you wait, the less accurate eyewitness information becomes and evidence fades,” Thom Kirk, the fusion center’s director, said in a statement.

This indicates that they will likely jump on the information – no matter how erroneous it may be – and investigate it right away, thus wasting precious taxpayer dollars and time.

Another major issue is the fact that the application never makes users confirm that they have evidence of criminal activity or even suspected criminal activity when sending reports.

As I mentioned previously, this could open the door to reports being filed maliciously or reports being filed which are based on no strong evidence whatsoever, thus wasting the time of fusion center personnel.

With so little restrictions in place, an ignorant individual could snap a picture of every person who looks like they could be Muslim, thus putting the rights of those individuals in danger and inundating the intelligence analysts with nothing more than random pictures of harmless people.

There is no indication of how long the fusion center or the DHS is permitted to store the information submitted through the application, meaning that anyone could essentially create a DHS file on you by submitting reports which could possibly be retained for the rest of your life.

An even more dangerous implication is the possibility that people could take pictures of you which could then be uploaded into a centralized federal database along with some of your basic biometric information.

This could be used for facial recognition purposes and “soft biometrics” as well.

The biggest question raised by all of this is: why does the state of West Virginia think that they need an app for mobile phones to report supposedly suspicious activity?

In fact, a 2010 investigation by The Washington Post found that West Virginia was among a mere 15 states which had zero terrorism convictions in both state and federal courts since September 11, 2001.

They also found that West Virginia was number 36 when ranking the amount of funds states received from homeland security in 2009.

Based on these facts, I see this move as something like a test run for the application to see if it can do what the Department of Homeland Security wants before rolling it out to more states.

“We’re currently looking at our other services to see what else makes sense to move to the mobile platform,” Jimmy Gianato, the West Virginia director of homeland security, said.

Considering the technology at work in this app I think it is quite clear that this has no real benefit in terms of actually keeping Americans safe.

Instead, I think this application serves as a way to harass and intimidate the public. It also functions as a great way to keep people paranoid and concerned that anyone and everyone could be snapping a picture of them which will likely result in a visit from your not-so-friendly neighborhood homeland security agents.

I think it is quite clear that the dangers this presents in terms of protecting what little privacy and liberty left greatly outweigh whatever small benefit it might have in terms of intelligence gathering.

One Response to New smartphone app ushers in the digital age of citizen spying

  1. Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 1:57 AM

    Nobody likes a snitch! This is so ripe for abuse!


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