The state of West Virginia has developed an app that will turn people into government informants: the Suspicious Activity Reporting Application. It's an app loaded with good intentions, but it could go very bad in very little time.
According to the West Virginian authorities in charge of the project, their app is designed "to submit tips concerning suspicious criminal and terrorist activity." That includes location data, description of the scene and, preferably, a photo.
It's not a bad idea. You can imagine a lot of good uses for it, and, not surprisingly, that's just how the authorities justify it:
The longer you wait the less accurate eyewitness information becomes and evidence fades. Enabling the information to be sent at the time the activity is taking place will not only improve the accuracy of the report, but also improve the ability of the authorities to respond quickly.
It makes sense. In fact, other states wil likely follow West Virginia's lead. Kentucky already had an app that allowed citizens to report on suspicious activity, but it didn't have image support—it was like calling 911. This one is faster and easier to use, and it captures images and a lot more information.
This could definitely help police and other security agencies. But it could also go terribly wrong. This app can turn any nosy—and anonymous—citizen into a live, mobile, state-controlled CCTV cell. And not every nosy citizen knows what is really suspicious. It's easy to jump to conclusions and send the wrong report—and equally easy to use this maliciously. You don't have to enter your personal information if you don't want.
The questions are: What would authorities do with all of this information? Will they store it all forever? Do they discard whatever is not a real criminal or terrorist threat? Who determines what is real and what is crying wolf?
Sure, anyone can take a video or a photo of anything they can capture, with or without this application, but by making the process painless and automatic, it encourages people to use it frequently. And the data is gathered systematically.
At the end, it's the same (hard) question: Would you sacrifice your privacy in the name of some fictional sense of security? Because, let's face it, nobody has demonstrated how effective popular intelligence gathering networks are.
The app is now available for iOS and Android. Because West Virginia doesn't care about your platform as long as you use your phone to take photos of Suspicious Activity. [App Store and Google Play via Public Intelligence]