America has surveillance on the mind, thanks to unavoidable reminders that we're being monitored by both the government and corporations. And in Canada, a soon-to-debut mobile app is raising the specter of another level of observation: Called SpotSquad, it lets users report parking violations to the operators of private lots, in return for a portion of the fees paid by violators.
The app will reportedly be demoed in Winnipeg starting in July. Behold, a strangely silent promotional video:
Chris Johnson, co-founder of the technology firm responsible for the app, told Fox News that SpotSquad could transition from private lots to public property, meaning users' reports would summon local law enforcement to write tickets or have vehicles towed. He even suggested that laws might be written to allow SpotSquad reports to generate actual citations, if the system works well enough in trials.
There's precedent for the authorities using this sort of smartphone-enabled citizen surveillance: Last fall, the Delaware Information and Analysis Center, a unit of the state police's Criminal Intelligence Section, offered an app enabling users to report people or activities that they deem suspicious. The Delaware Secretary for Safety and Homeland Security, Lewis D. Schiliro, called it "a quick and easy way for citizens to help us protect our communities."
A previous, nationwide effort to get the public to "serve as extra eyes and ears for our law enforcement community," in Schiliro's words, did not go over well. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration proposed a program called Operation TIPS, or Terrorism Information and Prevention System, that would have made private citizens gatherers of domestic intelligence. But when, in the summer of 2002, the press told people that "the government wants your cable guy, meter reader, even your postman to voluntarily report any and all suspicious information about you to a new, central FBI database" (in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek), the outcry that followed led to the plan's cancellation.
That sort of response is hard to imagine now, when establishment journalists are defending the NSA's bulk surveillance, and the world's leading Internet company is chaired by a man who once said about privacy concerns, "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it."
It's true that Internet has for years allowed people to shame those whose behavior they find objectionable. The anti-harassment app Hollaback!, for instance, lets "participants use their smartphones to document street-gropers, cat-callers, or just intimidating onlookers", according to The Story Exchange. And on websites like LousyTippers.com, food service workers can expose diners who skimp on gratuities ("Use the database to list all those who thought they could stiff you in anonymity").
But SpotSquad represents a different model. Rather than upload evidence of bad behavior, with the goal of causing embarrassment and (hopefully) deterrence, users will report offenders directly to the authorities for financial gain.
Parking is emotionally charged enough in some places, like New York City, that many might welcome the advent of such an app, even without the incentive; see, for instance, Jalopnik's impassioned response: "we so need this here in the U.S. due to the massive amount of asshat parking that goes on." But the mercenary aspect is disconcerting. If people are going to snitch, it should probably be because the offense is serious enough to warrant it, not because they're moonlighting as deputized monitors. (Fox reports that the app will assign users ranks "ranging from Private to General".) On the other hand, using SpotSquad beats keying someone's car, for both you and the other guy.
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