Friday, April 26, 2013

Spier beware: Is the Mesa PD's new snitch app actually spying on you?

Is the new Mesa Police Department's new mobile app spying on the very "good citizens" it purports to gather tips from?  If the permissions section of the Android download page is to be believed, it very likely is.  But just how it might be spying on you depends on which app you download, and it's not clear from the cops' webpage which one you're getting.

The MPD announced the other day that they have a new app for taking tips on crime in Mesa, paid for with funds raised through RICO seizures.  Interestingly, clicking on the Android link on their website actually takes you to an application called TipSubmit.  If you are foolish enough to download it, not only does the program track your location very specifically, but it also has full access to the camera on your phone, which it can use "at any time without your confirmation."  Quite disturbing.

But if you go to Google Play, however, and do a manual search for "mesa police Arizona", what you get is a link to a different app, presumably the new one.  Of course, this one, too, has access to your location, but it also has the ability "to call phone numbers without your intervention".

A search for that specific permission brought up a Geek Squad article titled "How to spot a bad Android smartphone application",  which labeled the ability to directly call phone numbers as "[v]ery suspicious".  Indeed, the app itself notes in its own description that this permission "doesn't allow the app to call emergency numbers" -- ironically probably one of the main functions one would expect from such an app.  So who is it calling?  And what does it need those numbers for?  Does this power extend to turning on the microphone?  Certainly, this ought to give any potential user pause before downloading.  Apparently the Mesa PD didn't think these issues were important enough to address in their press conference -- or maybe no reporter thought to ask them.  Certainly users deserve to know.

The Mesa PD has been quite purposeful in its adoption of policing technology over the last few years, recognizing it as a potential force multiplier in its war on the poor.  In a recent Fox 10 article, Chief Frank Milstead said, "We're a very lean department so we have to use technology to make up for deficiency in staff."  At the same press conference in which he rolled out the new snitch app, he likewise touted the MPD's new mobile identification system and on the spot ticketing system.

Clearly the Mesa PD is dedicated to the 1984-ification of policing, and their new snitch app should be seen in this light.  It masquerades as a tool for making everyone safe, but it's really just yet another Big Brother weapon in their arsenal -- an arsenal that is aimed squarely at us.  It's not intended to make us safer, it's meant to make us more easily controlled, to sow the seeds of distrust and turn us against each other.  To turn us all into potential snitches.

What's more, these police apps bombard us with crime news from our neighborhood and city.  Mesa PD's app promises a paranoia-inducing "crime maps" feature, in which we can  "[v]iew real-time crime maps of activities in your neighborhood or across the city. Explore the details behind the crimes."

Chief Milstead put it this way: "People accusing us of misuse of force. I think our officers are safer because people realize they're on video and they're actually being held accountable by videotape for their actions."  In a January interview, Mesa PD Sgt. Tony Landato described the application of their new fingerprint system.  He said, “Our officers stopped a subject who matched the description who was acting very suspicious. ... We ran his fingerprint. It was not our suspect in the domestic violence. It was a homicide suspect.”  They arrested him.  He had been caught in a very wide virtual and physical dragnet.

The Mesa PD wants to watch us at all times, and it's not about making us safer.  In their unblinking eyes, we are all suspects, especially if we are poor or if we're not white.  We're all suspicious in their eyes.  And where gaps in their surveillance exist, they expect us to do the work for them.  Milstead summed it up in a recent NPR interview: “If we don’t use the public’s eyes to help not only to report crime but to help solve crime, we’re going to miss things."  This app is meant to fill in those gaps by reporting on everyone.

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