Are neighborhood watch apps making us safer?
These days, a smartphone of a resident of San Francisco or New York might buzz with a notification of a new Instagram post from a friend or a news update about a jump in the stock market. But in between those, a more ominous alert can catch their attention: “1.5 miles away, a woman was shot in her face,” or “0.5 miles away, fire reported on rooftop.”
This type of alert could come from one of three apps—Citizen, Neighbors, and Nextdoor—which are part of an ecosystem of online tools that, over the past decade, have become the new neighborhood watch. From their mobile phones, users are instantaneously able to find out about their neighbors’ fears and suspicions, track police scanners to discover any reported crime or emergency, and share footage from home security cameras.
The internet has helped vigilantism and conspiracy theories thrive, with its anonymous message boards, algorithm-enabled rabbit holes, and spaces for just about anyone to share their suspicions. The mobile web has brought it all to our fingertips, accessible at any moment, relevant to our precise location.
People have always been curious about crime, fearful for their safety, and yearned for community. But today, technology can supercharge these feelings, and sometimes helps people give into their worst inclinations. Privileged (often white) users are defining safety by excluding those who are already disenfranchised (usually people of color). At the same time, the platforms and devices grant tech companies and law enforcement new ways to build their networks of surveillance.
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