Does the New “Citizen App” Help or Harm the Public?The technology age is producing new wonders all the time. It’s amazing to think that in my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise of the internet, robot dogs, Uber, and 3D printing for prosthetic limbs. On the other hand, Rule 34 proves that we’ve ALL seen some “stuff” that we wish we hadn’t, too – but I guess you take the good with the bad, right?

One of the coolest things about the dawn of the new information age is the way it allows community leaders and activists to increase their leverage, and to get people involved in causes that matter. But I wonder if all of this information is really just white noise – and how much is downright dangerous when it comes to our rights to privacy.

The launching of a mobile application called Citizen in Baltimore is raising questions about how much crime information is helpful and how much wastes valuable police resources and affects people’s rights. According to the Baltimore Sun, “the app, called Citizen, collects publicly available information — such as police scanner chatter — and pushes out notifications to users within a certain radius of incidents.”

The founder of the Citizen app, Andrew Frame, claims that 10% of New Yorkers are now using the app in the city. He claims that Baltimore was chosen as the third city to have access to the app because of the city’s high crime rate. The Baltimore Sun states that Baltimore has led the nation in homicides in each of the last four years (though perhaps people in Chicago might have a different opinion) and that other violent crimes are too common in the city.

City officials, local law enforcement, and others are discussing the pros and cons of the app. They are vetting the app to see how well it works. The newspaper story claimed that “During beta-testing of the app last week, the app’s analysts had information about the shooting at Frederick Douglass High School within 90 seconds of it hitting the police scanner, and would have been in a position to alert users to avoid the school.”

Mr. Frame claims that the Citizen app:

  • “issues about 2 million safety notifications per day
  • has helped reconnect lost children with their families
  • warned residents of fires in their buildings
  • and prevented people from walking into potentially dangerous situations”

Frame says that not every crime will result in an alert – such as domestic violence, suicide attempts in private homes, and “alerts for suspicious people or bags.”

Concerns about the app

I, uh – I have some concerns.

An initial major concern is that the data accumulated by the app could affect people’s privacy rights. Frame claims he won’t share the data with outside parties. I’m not sure I believe him, since I don’t know how he defines “outside parties.” And as a criminal defense lawyer, I don’t know that I love the idea of a rando tech guy gathering information about alleged crimes and sharing it with the police, given that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of vetting system in place.

Does this guy not read the news? Did he not watch APB?

But the truth is, the problems might extend well past privacy concerns. What if bystanders try to intervene in dangerous situations instead of leaving matters to the police? What if they get hurt?

What if the citizen reporters get it wrong?

I’m not saying that some real good couldn’t be done with an app like this. I’m saying that I’m a criminal defense lawyer, and I don’t necessarily believe that the “helpful” public is really all that helpful. People get it wrong a lot. They think they see one thing when it’s really another. They think they hear something but it’s out of context. Think about it: even the police get it wrong sometimes, and they’ve been trained – often extensively – in how to identify a criminal act and an alleged perpetrator.

Plus, you know – the whole nightmare of figuring out what to do with the evidence:

  • Whether any evidence seized through the app could be challenged if it was obtained without a warrant or without probable cause.
  • There may be a concern that defendants can’t cross-examine or challenge the credibility of the app in court.
  • When and how the evidence obtained through the app could be admitted in court.
  • Software glitches.

Software apps may be fun and informative, but when used in the criminal justice system, they must be balanced against the rights of the accused. If you’ve been charged with any crime, you need an experienced Annapolis criminal defense lawyer on your side. At Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, we’ve been fighting for the accused for nearly 20 years. To discuss your case, call 410.777.8103, or use my contact form to schedule an appointment.