A crime has been reported in your city — do you want to know about it? That may seem like a pretty straightforward question, but its answer is more nuanced than you may think.

First, you need to consider where that information is coming from. Is it a reliable source or baseless rumor? The former is worth studying; the latter may cause panic (one CityLab article called it “urban paranoia”) for no good reason. Second, there’s the question of relevance. If there has been a documented upswing in nighttime burglaries in your neighborhood over the last week, that might be a good indicator that it’s time to consider heightening your home security measures. But it would be tedious to listen to every report of crime in a 50-mile radius, when many of those incidents are irrelevant to you.

A graphic from Citizen illustrating how its app tags crimes in progress and notifies users.

Third, and possibly most important, is the question of privacy. If your city installed facial recognition cameras on every street corner and monitored all local phone calls for specific keywords, they might be able to catch more criminals. However, that type of Orwellian surveillance program would also be an appalling invasion of privacy for thousands of innocent people.

Each of these points is relevant to the discussion of a growing trend in the tech world: crime tracking apps. These cell phone applications allow users to track and share reported criminal activity in a certain geographic radius. Some, like Nextdoor and Neighbors by Ring, incorporate user-submitted crime reports into a social media app. Others, like Citizen and RedZone Map, collect official reports directly from law enforcement or other first responders. Most of the apps allow users to upload photos, videos, and comments related to the incident.

In the video below, Citizen explains how its mission to “protect the world” is being implemented:

Citizen asks, “what chance do crime and corruption have when technology unites the forces of good?” Somewhat ironically, Citizen’s developers previously launched an app known as Vigilante, which was banned by Apple from the App Store over concerns that it might cause or encourage physical harm (i.e. literal vigilantism). The current version of Citizen is available in a growing list of major cities, including New York City, San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and most recently Phoenix.

It’s certainly true that technology, including mobile apps, can make our lives easier and safer. We rely on helpful apps for navigation, communication, and networking every day. But that same tech can become a double-edged sword if it distracts us with false information, overwhelms us with irrelevant data, or excessively infringes on our privacy.

So, what are your thoughts on crime tracking apps? Are they a beneficial tool for preparedness, a worrying sign of technological overreach, or something in between? Let us know in the poll below.


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