See something, tag something: Crime-reporting app uses images, GPS

West Virginia has released a smart-phone app that brings the anonymous tip line into the digital age but in some quarters has raised fears about neighbors spying on each other.

The Suspicious Activity Reporting Application is a free app for Apple iOS and Android devices that lets users take pictures or video of suspicious activity, tag it with Global Positioning System coordinates, add text and send it to the state’s fusion center.

It’s not intended for emergencies — officials still want people to use 911 for that — and people submitting a tip have the choice of remaining anonymous or including contact information.

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The app, available on the iTunes Apps Store and the Android Market, was developed by West Virginia Interactive as a joint project of the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and its Intelligence Fusion Center. It adds a mobile element to the existing methods of reporting suspicious activity  via the fusion center’s website or by calling the center.

A method of reporting that includes images and location information reported from the scene would add speed and accuracy to crime reports, which state officials said was important.

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

Some news outlets and blogs have taken issue with the app, however, calling it a “spy app” and saying it makes it too easy for people to snitch on each other.

Some observers, such as Clay Dillow of Popular Science, point out that it could be used frivolously, causing police to waste a lot of time sorting through minor, or made-up, infractions. Others, such as the website, raise the specter of citizen-spies unwittingly working for the government. And there is always the possibility of people using the app against each other in a dispute.

But such abuses have always been possible. People long ago were able to drop a dime on each other from a pay phone, and tip lines and reporting websites have endured; they’re even accessible by mobile devices. An app such as this was inevitable in an era when smart phones are replacing computers as people’s primary devices, mobile broadband continues to grow, and every gadget has a camera in it.

It’s possible the app could see an early flurry of inappropriate reports, but it likely would then settle in to a routine, like other tip lines.

But it could also generate useful citizen participation and help fusion center personnel gather, analyze and share information, which is the purpose of the centers.

West Virginia’s Intelligence Fusion Center is one of 72 established around the country by the federal Homeland Security Department and the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs in wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Opened between 2003 and 2007, the centers are designed to enable information sharing among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies such as the CIA, FBI and the military.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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