A New Implication of Cellphone Video: Citizens Taping Each Other For Police

The Web site Circa reports on a new app that encourages members of the public to videotape other members of the public who are texting while driving, and to submit those videotapes to the authorities so that the texting drivers can be ticketed. The app pays a $5 bounty to those who submit approved videos and is currently in use in some areas in California.

What are we to think of this?

To start with, let’s be clear: people have a First Amendment right to take video in public. That fact—combined with the relatively new reality of a video camera in everyone’s pocket—does raise some privacy threats, but (as I have discussed) they are inescapable. One such threat, for example, might involve a closeted teen driving to a gay rights meeting, or a battered spouse traveling to make secret arrangements to escape, who could face serious consequences for having their whereabouts revealed through one of these videos. Of course, that same thing could happen should they get an old-fashioned ticket for speeding—or for texting. But, the video could also reveal who else is in the car with them.

More broadly, this system evokes uncomfortable comparisons with totalitarian societies where individuals are encouraged to constantly inform on one another. I certainly do not want to undercut the seriousness of distracted driving, which is a genuine problem in the smartphone era that has created much tragedy. As a cyclist I see this every day out on the roads where texting drivers represent a mortal threat to me.

But most people probably wouldn't want to live in a world full of vigilant, cellphone-toting busybodies enforcing every rule and regulation at every moment. Indeed, privacy thinkers have long observed that such “Little Brother” surveillance could become oppressive in the same way that Big Brother surveillance has long been feared to be. It’s not hard to imagine this system, if successful, being expanded. The app’s makers themselves say that “speeding violations are not currently supported” (emphasis added), but given the profit motives at work here—both by the app makers and by the army of phone-toting vigilantes that they seek to create—it could easily grow to cover not only speeding and parking violations, but also any other conceivable regulation, from driving with a broken tail light to jaywalking.

In fact, should such a Little Brother ecosystem emerge, the next step would probably be bounty-chasing citizens using their cars’ built-in cameras combined with additional apps to identify violations such as broken tail lights or changing lanes without signaling and transmitting the video to the authorities, all automatically without any human intervention. And presto, we’re in the realm of AI law enforcement, with all the problems and conundrums that such enforcement raises.

Of course, people already do inform on their fellow citizens. But such reports are typically limited to the most serious crimes, or those that directly harm an aggrieved party. What is new about this model is that it provides a means for people to engage in such reporting in areas where they previously could not do so, and allows citizens to provide actual evidence of infraction besides their testimony. Of course when citizens are submitting evidence to the authorities to be used against other citizens in legal proceedings, one issue that always looms is the possibility of falsification of evidence by grudge-holders or others trying to frame their enemies. It sounds like this outfit has at least thought about chain-of-custody and authenticity issues (submitted video is encrypted and digitally signed, for example). Whether such measures are adequate will need to be hashed out in court.

Racial bias

One of the biggest problems with this model of law enforcement is the likelihood that its use will reflect racism and other societal biases, causing some groups to become subject to more stringent enforcement than others, potentially even more than we have seen in many areas with enforcement by actual police officers, or in a less measurable and/or controllable manner. The makers of this app should take steps to at least measure whether it is resulting in racial or other biases.

Finally, let me note one potential element of hypocrisy with regard to this app. In their FAQ the makers address the question of whether citizens can submit reports of police officers who are texting while driving. The answer: no. “Police officers are trained on duty to be able to use a mobile device or computer while on patrol,” they explain. This sounds dubious to me. Is there really a portion of every police academy curriculum dedicated to such training? And can such training even really be effective? The cognitive challenge of trying to pay attention to a digital device while operating a two-ton vehicle traveling at 55 MPH (which means a driver will cover the length of a football field in just 5 seconds, as the app makers point out) seems to me like something that emerges from the deep structure of the human brain, not fixable with any amount of training, let alone whatever course in driving-and-typing that today’s officers allegedly undergo. The whole thing smacks of yet another police privilege. When I’m biking I’ll be just as dead if it’s a police officer who runs me down.

It’s only relatively recently that we’ve entered the stage in human society where nearly every person carries a video camera with them at all times, and the social implications of this shift are still emerging. Historians will argue about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement and the new attention to police violence, for example, but there’s a good argument that they stem from a video revolution in policing. Now this app is raising another possible implication of video revolution—pervasive videotaped citizen enforcement—that we as a society have not yet confronted.

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Anonymous

The top duty of the U.S. Supreme Court is to interpret the letter & spirit of individual amendments and individual clauses of the U.S. Constitution. What remedy do Americans have when the high court refuses to do that?

For example: the wording and intent of the Fourth Amendment is extremely clear to regular citizens - fishing expeditions are illegal with a judicial warrant based on probable cause of a past crime. There is no way the high court rulings since the late 1960's are a correct interpretation of that clear language.

Anonymous

With the advances in manufacturer's location technology, the technology might soon exist to not only block a cell phone while moving over a certain speed but to only block the driver of the car.

For example: manufacturer's may prevent a "driver" from using a cell phone while in motion, but allowing the back seat passenger's phone to operate based on triangulation by cell towers.

Future tech

Laws already exist that prevent "driving while distracted". I can't count how many times I've watched someone eat a cheeseburger or put on makeup while driving. Both crimes in my view. Driving is a privilege that most Americans view as a right.

Wake up America! You are operating a 2-4 THOUSAND pound machine cacpable of killing you and others. Drive your car and stay off your phone.

I love the ACLU but would they say "it's invasive use of technology to report a drunk driver swerving around the road...". I don't know. I do know when you operate a machine of any kind, you have an absolute obligation to do so without harm to others.

However, turning off phones by active government intrusion is not the answer. I "shame" anyone I see with a phone to their head with honks and jeers! Drive, don't kill.

Anonymous

What the Press and Hollywood won't tell you is that domestic spying by "Big Brother" or "Little Brother" (spying by a local neighbor) is a grossly inaccurate truth gathering tool. The target is never confronted to confirm the truth but always under suspicion and the busybody never risks penalty of perjury).

This type of cowardly snooping is gathering incomplete bits of information and is usually directed at unpopular citizens resulting in defamation.

It's similar to the Little Brother snooping of the Salem Witch Trials, Alien & Sedition Acts, Red Scare or the East German network of informants during the Cold War (communists).

Anonymous

Exactly!

Anonymous

This type of busybody reporting, not under oath, also doesn't show the full "context" of the situation.

For example: was the car actually moving or parked? In speeding cases was the driver trying to avoid an accident, speeding to get out of the way, etc.? All things professional police officers are trained to consider and might be material evidence in court.

Anonymous

Keep in mind that a guy claimed he could shoot anyone on a NYC street, get away with it and not get arrested for it - half the voters, including many coos, elected him President of the United States.

At least half the voters don't believe in law & order, they could probably care less about anyone texting while driving.

db

I'm just curious. Can the DRIVER of one car use the app to video the texting driver of another car? That means the person making the video is also "driving distracted". And they should also receive a ticket.
How can it be OK for one person who is in the process of committing a illegal act, record and report someone else doing the same illegal act and not get charged?

Bd

I agree, any use of a cell phone or like device that causes distraction should be punished.

Anonymous

The ACLU has offered an app for many years that you can use to record and transmit directly to the ACLU any event you wish - I have it on my phone. The recommended uses are when observing illegal behavior or observing police interacting with pretty much anyone. So the primary difference between the ACLU app and this app is ... who is on the receiving end.

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