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Tue, 13 Sep 2022 07:01
Matthew Guariglia is a historian who studies surveillance and policing. In this conversation with Lindsay, Guariglia argues that online platforms like Nextdoor have created a new form of mass surveillance, one that threatens local communities.
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To listen to American scandal one week early and add free, join Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. Download the Wondry app in your Apple or Google Play mobile app store today. From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American scandal. In 2013, Edward Snowden shocked the world when he revealed that the federal government was spying on millions of Americans. Snowden had been working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. He felt motivated to serve his country in the war on terror. And as a gifted computer programmer, Snowden found what seemed like a natural home at the NSA. But after stumbling on a highly classified document, Snowden faced a moral crisis. He learned that in the broader fight against terrorism, America spy agencies were targeting regular citizens, collecting data from phone calls, emails, and other online activities. Snowden went on to leak a trove of government documents revealing the scope of the NSA's programs. The news coverage that followed was an immediate sensation and set off a heated debate about privacy on the internet and the tradeoff between national security and personal freedom. It's a debate that's recently picked up steam on a more local level with a growing popularity of online platforms like Nextor and Citizen. These crowdsourced apps allow residents to monitor their own communities and post information online. They're often billed as a way to keep community safe. But according to my guest, Matthew Goreglia, the apps also foster paranoia, racial profiling, and a skewed understanding of crime. Goreglia is a historian who studies police and surveillance. He's the author of the forthcoming book, Police and the Empire City, which looks at the history of New York City's police department. He also works as a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that works on privacy and technology. In our conversation, we'll look at how platforms like Nextor have helped create a new paradigm of mass surveillance. And then we'll go back in history and look at some of the dire consequences when citizens lose their privacy. Our conversation is next. American scandal is sponsored by the new audiobook, Killing the Legends, the 12th audiobook and the multi-million-selling killing series from Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Muhammad Ali, three icons known everywhere in every nation across every culture. They had everything. Fame, money, the admiration of millions, but their lives spun out of control at the hands of those they most trusted. Killing the Legends explores the lives, legacies, and tragic deaths of these three legends. Each experienced a men's success, then failures that forced them to change. Each faced a challenge of growing old and fields that privileged youth. 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Matthew Corey Gula, welcome to American Scandal. I am glad to be on here to discuss this. Now, mass surveillance usually conjures up images of some prying, big brother government. The very sort of fear that pushed Edward Snowden to take his either courageous or treasonous actions. But mass surveillance has evolved. It's now voluntary and opting into by millions. So let's start with the basics. Tell us about some of these private platforms like Next Door and Citizen, and walk us through how they work. Yeah, well, surveillance is really a culture as much as it is a policy level positioning by the government. And the way these apps work is they are crowdsourced. People, if they see something that they think their neighbors ought to know, and this is part of the, you know, if you see something say something kind of safety culture that we live in, they are capable of photographing it or just doing a post. And so if you look through, for instance, a Sison app, you'll see all sorts of like bubbles popping up on a map, which says, you know, unconfirmed reports of man armed with pipe or something like that. And that has been put there by a person who, you know, may or may not have seen something, and has posted it out to the public. And what is the goal of these apps? If you ask them, they would say the goal is to make people aware, you know, if there is a report of a person who may or may not have a pipe or a knife or would have you at a specific intersection, the idea is you might get a notification on your app and you might know to avoid that intersection. And that's if you're asking the app developers, what do you think the app users might say is the purpose? You know, part of it would be an idea of safety or, you know, there's a lot of morbid curiosity because I can see not just my immediate neighborhood, but I could see, you know, reports coming from sometimes miles and miles away at the other end of the city or nearby cities or suburbs. And so I think there is more than a modicum of morbid curiosity that goes into the app, perhaps connected to our societal obsession with true crime right now. We've already described a little bit of what these apps do in a sort of post and information they contain, and fearful claims about men with pipes. But if anyone in our audience has not downloaded or used these apps and they open it up, it will be something familiar to them, a feed of posts from users about almost anything. What else do they include or look like? Okay, so when you open up next door, you see a feed a bit like Facebook. There are all these postings that you can scroll through. You'll see some more community stuff. People trying to sell things, people looking for a pet sitter, and that's quite a bit different from citizen where when you open it, you see a map with yourself in the middle and where you are, and you see a around you a series of dots that are the posts. They are geographically based, and they are kind of tiered based on urgency. So red is things that are happening right now, it might be rather urgent, yellow or things that have happened maybe in the last few hours, and then gray dots sometimes are up to four or five days ago. But the sheer number of dots is a little overwhelming and makes you give you the overall impression that even if some of these things happened days and days ago, that your neighborhood is absolutely under siege with public safety incidents, and it's kind of an overwhelming map of your area. And how popular are these apps? What are their user basis likes? It's hard to know. A lot of the apps will claim themselves, and these statistics might be out of day, that there are like tens of millions of people around the US who are using them. I know if you open up the citizen app, it says how many users are around you within maybe I think a half mile square of you, and usually it's around 10,000 people I live in, and a fairly dense city. So we can surmise that they're pretty popular. What do we know about the demographics of the users of these apps? Is there a difference between, say, next door and citizen? You know, it's really hard to know. We know that both have been accused in the past of kind of inciting racial discrimination and creating the climate for the SNAP kind of racial profiling decisions where if you are being asked by the app to keep your neighbors aware of anything suspicious, that you are most based assumptions of what is suspicious are going to come out. And often that includes kind of putting people of color on blast in your neighborhood as being sticking out or not belonging there. So, you know, there has been some assumptions in the past that the people who are using these apps are white people, but you know, I haven't seen any clear demographic breakdowns. So how do these platforms amount to surveillance then? It's not NSA collecting phone records. No, it's not. It is kind of the see something say something culture that we have, where the idea is everybody has been deputized. If you see something that you deem suspicious or like it might be a public threat or something that you might want your neighbors to know about, you should, you know, drop a pen and report it to the public. A lot of this is just base speculation. And so it is not surveillance in the traditional sense where it's, you know, government collecting information, but it is a way that has deputized people to elevate seemingly innocuous moments to a position where they, your neighbors that might be noticed by the police because, you know, there's been a lot of evidence and I think in the past police have kept an eye on these apps. So there is a real fear that somebody might see something they deem suspicious, put it on the app. And it's not just the neighbors who have become aware of it. It's the police as well. Now, it sounds like you're arguing that this deputization of the general populace has some sort of profound effect on how we see the world, how we see our neighbors or our fellow citizens. Now, I've used some of these apps and what you can find is simultaneously terrifying or entertaining on next door. For instance, you'll find videos of thieves stealing lawnmowers or breaking into cars or people throwing trash into yards or just pictures of lost pets and pleas for help. Some people just want to find a good plumber, right? In these cases, the apps feel like they're a digital town square and helpful in that way. But as we begun to hint, there are other posts that give voice to confusing or even disturbing ideas of race, class, politics. There are xenophobic concerns, outrageous scapegoating and conversations really that if they were interactions with my neighbors in face to face, they would have me saying, thanks Paul, glad to return the leaf flour, but bye now. Yeah, there is a sense that it is kind of like a digital town square. There's a sense that is like a, you know, a forum or a kind of community discussion board online. And, you know, I have nothing against community-based discussion boards online. The problem that I see with these apps is they're specifically security-based focus. It is the crime and public safety-based focus, which means that, you know, if your app is geared towards specifically public safety and you feel as if you have a bit of an obligation or responsibility to keep your neighbors informed of things that might be suspicious, then you are more likely to post on that app if you see something suspicious than if you, you know, are looking to borrow a cup of sugar. So it sounds like there's an unintended effect here. On its face, any sort of attempt to increase public safety sounds good. Any attempt to band the community together in service of the community sounds good. But the mere facilitation of that community action seems to breed paranoia. Is that what you're saying? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, if I saw somebody walking down the street with a box cutter on their hip because they're coming to or from their job, but somehow that didn't sit right with me, you know, it's so much easier with this app to dash off a quick post, you know, like man with box cutter might want to avoid this area when if I didn't have the app that wouldn't be a problem and that person would be able to get home safely without the potential of interception from the police or would have you. And I think in some ways it makes our cities feel less safe if we're aware of any unconfirmed reports happening on the other side of the city than if we just didn't know. And sometimes awareness is useful, you know, if there's a mountain lion on the loose in the city, and I need to know what areas to avoid, that might be helpful. But I just, I really don't need to know every time there's an unconfirmed report of what have you happening three miles away, because it really just makes me feel less safe and not more. And what do you think that does to the community if on aggregate? While attempting to be safe, most people feel less safe. What does that do for the community spirit? Property values? How, how they vote? Yeah, I mean, I think it would certainly make people more suspicious of one another. It might make people think that despite what statistics say crime is out of control, even if every statistic under the sun says that crime has actually continued to be down from what it was in 2017 or 2018. And, you know, that impacts how people relate to the neighbors, how people vote, how people think about their police departments and how much funding it gets. So it really kind of affects the way people view their city. Now, I'm glad you brought up crime statistics because this is clearly an area of political concern. There are law and order politicians who would have us believe that we are experiencing a rise in crime. That's not necessarily true. But if we are seeing scary posts in these apps, is there a feeling that this rise in crime is true? What is actually happening? Yeah, I mean, our awareness of crime has never been higher, and it doesn't help that if you look through some of these apps, so many of these posts say unconfirmed reports. And so, you know, the number might be half what it actually is because all of these reports were, you know, somebody seeing something and then realizing later that, well, maybe that pipe that I thought that man was wielding was really because he was a plumber heading to a job. And does it get taken down? Does it sit on to his an app for four or five days? You know, it's kind of unclear about that. And so, while, you know, a lot of people say that crime is down from what it was, and, you know, before the pandemic, 2018, 2019, that uptick in crime from 2020 has people thinking that, you know, the world might be ending, but also people are experiencing crime. And that is scary for people. You know, it's hard to look at stats when your car is getting broken into. But I think the answer that we can't go back to is what we've been trying for, you know, over a century, which is just more and more and more and more policing as the only tool to fix this problem. So I think there's a lot of complicated dimensions at play of which statistics and perception play a very large role. And as I said, you know, even though statistics might be down, people's personal encounters out in the world and certainly are awareness of crime through reporting through apps has never been higher. Now speaking of awareness, of course, these apps are for profit and they are social media platforms of some sort. So it goes the reason that they fall prey to some of the same criticized aspects of others social media platforms in that they're algorithmic and they chase clicks. Are either of these platforms promoting posts that get the most clicks and perhaps are the most fearful? I don't see any promoted posts per se, but I do know that, you know, if you opt into push alerts, you can get those quite frequently and those are the posts with these apps deemed that like you need to see right now. And of course, they're the scariest ones, the most immediate ones, the ones close to you. And that certainly does get you to open up the app and spend more time on it. Hello, I'm Florence Given, the best selling author of the book Women Don't Are You Pretty and Girlcrush. And this is my podcast exactly. Join me as I connect with fascinating guests from authors, cultural commentators, doctors, thought leaders to psychologists, celebrities and comedians. And guess what? We're back to do it all again in season two with the likes of the holistic psychologist, victorious scorn and I own a David to name a few season two of exactly podcast out now, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together. And we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the Evil Genius Bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining Wondery Plus in the Wondery app. These apps and other cloud enabled applications surrounding personal home security and public safety, they are producing reams of data, just enormous amounts of information. And we've mentioned the intersection of these private companies and the police. But how much access do the police have to these sets of data? And how are they being used? We know that for instance, I mean police probably have no problem downloading the Sizz and app and just opening it themselves. When they're sitting in their squad car and they're waiting for an island one to call in, it would not surprise me if they could click open the Sizz and app, just like any other user and go check out a call nearby where somebody has published an unconfirmed report of person sleeping on the sidewalk. Who knows? So I don't know about any official capacity. Certainly we can think of it as a two-way street as well. You know, police might be following up on calls they see on some of these apps. But also I've seen quite a few, maybe not recently, but quite a few reports on the citizen app where unconfirmed reports of shots fired for instance. And you look at where the call has come from and it's come from an alert on the shotspotter technology that police departments have, which is, I don't know if you're familiar with shotspotter, but there it's acoustic gunshot detection. They are high-powered microphones that are placed above intersections sometimes on street lamps or traffic lights which detect loud noises and supposedly can differentiate between fireworks or car-back fires or gunshots. And this often sends alerts directly to the police department for follow-up. But for a while I was seeing reports on the citizen app whenever a shotspotter device would be triggered anywhere in the city, which led me to believe that there was a while at least where not only were police probably getting information from the citizen app, but police were probably feeding information into the citizen app as well, at least in the form of this shotspotter call. Well isn't that also true about raw police scanner data that users just feed into the citizen app? Absolutely, yeah, yeah. And you know I've always been in favor of police scanners because I think it leads to a level of transparency. It's always been very helpful for journalists and citizen journalists, but I think there's something different when that kind of raw data is fed into a map and presented a little bit more formally than you know I think anybody listening to a police scanner understands that they might not understand everything that they're hearing, that police scanner is kind of raw data. And because the data being fed into these apps seems a little bit more polished to me, I worry that the healthy skepticism that somebody has when listening to a police scanner might not appear as much when you're looking at you know an app with a red dot on it. Now we've talked about how these apps might inadvertently affect community behavior and individual behavior in the deputization process that they become perhaps too hyper vigilant, too suspicious, but I'm wondering if these apps beyond the unintended consequences there have made any real attempts to deliberately provoke more vigilant behavior. Yeah, I mean probably the most disturbing incident of this was perhaps a year or two ago, I know when citizen was still kind of trying to find its footing about what kind of app it wanted to be, it had sent out a notification to people about an unhoused man who they had falsely believed had started a brush fire in the Los Angeles area. And I think not only broadcast this picture, but also a bounty of sorts for information leading to this person's arrest and it had turned out that this person was not involved at all and that they had broadcast a picture and offered a 10,000 bounty for information leading to the rest of somebody who had nothing to do with the brush fire. And this was I think for a lot of people, I really eye opening and scary experience about what these apps are thinking about what their trajectory might be in the future and what they might transform society into. Where do you think these apps lie on the spectrum between vigilant behavior and vigilante behavior? That's interesting. I mean that's a really compelling question because a lot of these times, a lot of these apps for a while were encouraging people to go get photographs, right? Go get a photograph of that incident so that your neighbors can see what's happening on the ground there. And there was a lot of talk and a lot of concern for a while that all these people were going to get into the way of fire departments and police because they were going to show up hoping to get the best shot for their neighbors on the season app. And I don't know if that's the safest behavior that these apps should be encouraging. Now we've been discussing in general the enabling effect of these apps in their ease of use and their ubiquity to increase the suspicion and fear of communities. This allows us as individuals, as users of these apps to tap into immediate base behavior that perhaps given a second thought, we would think better of. You have written and I have noticed that many of these apps become, and I'll quote you, assess pool of racial profiling, cop calling, gatekeeping, and fear spreading. I think we've discussed how these apps enable that, but is there any world in which these apps could prevent these kind of trigger hair trigger decisions? The apps I think have noticed and have made some attempts to reform. I've noticed that on season app, it's pretty easy to report comments now. Every time I open up and incident I see that there are some comments have been removed. And so I think they are trying, but they are still, I mean, the comments under some of these incidents are awful. They can often be quite grotesque. And so I don't know what these apps can really do, because I think part of the problem is the positioning of the app itself, that when you are inviting people to crowdsource essentially what they feel threatened by, that the problem lies in the people themselves and what they're posting and what they feel threatened by, and the app is just kind of the end result of that. And so like I said, I think part of what these apps need to do is maybe change their positioning a little bit. So to be less alarmist and purely a place to go to to see the latest threat to your home and your community and should be more like a kind of community forum or a community bulletin board. As we all know, fear motivates and motivation sells. So it seems like it's difficult, if not impossible, to expect these companies to change a working business model if they ever find one, and demand from them or expect from them and upright ethical behavior in the face of what they are only required to do and that's make money for their shareholders. What will it take to make these companies more careful corporate stewards working inside the community? I mean, the profit motive and the nefarious things that tech companies do in order to make that money and to maximize their profits is not a problem exclusive to these kind of crowdsource surveillance public safety apps. I mean, I think that is a problem writ large and tech right now is how do you get a company to put the public good over their addiction to getting people on the app more and more and more to maximize profits. And I think you've touched on a much larger problem than just what can be done about citizen or next door or similar apps. Well, let's talk about surveillance, I guess, as a general larger problem because you're a historian, you've studied police and surveillance and these debates about privacy and policing, they've been with us for a very long time. So let's go back into the history books. What is the precedent for this kind of paradigm in which citizens themselves are doing the actual work of mass surveillance? Is this new? You know, it's not new. Both a willingness to speak to police and a reluctance to speak to their police are, I've existed for as long as the police departments to have. And part of this has always come from the fact that police can't be everywhere at once. They can't see every incident, they can't see every, you know, tavern brawl, they can't see every car break in. But there are a lot more eyes on the street if you consider every person walking past and incident, every person looking out their window when they hear a loud noise. And so speaking to police and having people in the city be the eyes and ears of the police department is quite old, as is, as I said, the reluctance to speak to police. And so I think where we've seen what's changed is maybe as people over the years have become more and more reluctant to talk to police, especially, you know, in the wake of the last few years, I think there's never been more of an awareness that calling the police on somebody and being wrong about what they're up to could result in that person getting hurt or potentially getting killed by police officers. And so, you know, if we have reached an all-time high of reluctance to talk to police, I think the reliance on surveillance has come to replace that, that you don't need a good community relationship between police and potential onlookers and witnesses if there are thousands of cameras across the city who now serve that function. The right to privacy is one of those that seems just a little bit soft. It's abstract. It's got a broader spectrum than say, you know, the absolute right to bear arms, for instance. It's very easy to say and believe that, hey, if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide. So what's the real value of privacy? Why should we cherish it? Yeah, I mean, well, I think a lot of the people who say if you've nothing to hide, that you have nothing to fear or if you haven't done anything wrong, then you shouldn't be concerned about surveillance or people who perceive of privacy as kind of a privileged issue and a philosophical issue, aren't aware that there are people who live every day, you know, undocumented people, people of color, on house people, with the real consequences of constant surveillance, that people who have a home or who are white or who live in the suburbs aren't quite aware of the consequences of. And so, you know, having communities that are constantly under surveillance means that the things that people do every day, which might not technically be 100% legal, things like J-walking or having a drink on your stoop or like, you know, in some states, smoking marijuana on your front step, things like that suddenly become criminalized to a much greater extent in some communities rather than others because of constant surveillance. People who live in communities where there are a lot less surveillance are much more capable of getting away with a little bit of vandalism or J-walking than you would be if you lived in some of these over-surveiled and over-policed communities in cities. And I think another great example now that we are seeing outplay out in real time is the fallout from the end of Roe v. Wade. And the sense that, you know, if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from surveillance is easy to say when you don't know what's going to be illegal in the next year or two. And I think this is true historically, and I think this is true as we're seeing play out right now is you don't know what's going to be illegal in a year or two. Things that are totally commonplace now might be utterly criminalized and subject you to surveillance and police harassment in the future. In the 1930s, being a member of the Communist Party of the US was not subject to the same level of harassment and surveillance and derision that it was 15 years later. Having digital evidence that you had had an abortion was not the threat it was two years ago that it might be next year. And so the truth is that we don't know what the consequences of surveillance is because surveillance is while it is an active harm, a lot of what surveillance is weaponized vulnerability. It's about making you be vulnerable to police harassment or more surveillance in the future. And we just don't know what the future holds. Well, let's talk about any possible solutions. We've touched on the large problems facing these apps in general. And the facilitating effect that these apps give its users to interact with their community members in a perhaps too quick and too base of fashion. How can we fix this? Do these companies need to be regulated? Are there any interventions from outside the industry or the users that can help? That's a really good question. I mean, it's hard to know. I mean, don't use the app maybe is an easy one. But then again, we rarely see an incidence where these big tech companies which have millions of users are really affected by a few thousand or tens of thousands, concerns, citizens leading the app because you're never going to get everyone who uses the app to agree, especially because a lot of people on that app do have this kind of very vigilant and kind of crowdsource surveillance mentality. So, I mean, I think in general, you know, something has to be done. I think there should be some sort of regulation. But I think that in general, the government has been sleeping on the proliferation of crime-based surveillance-based apps and technologies as they've spread through the consumer market. And so, I think, you know, it's about time probably for some congressional hearings where, you know, I'd like to hear some of these CEOs brought before Congress to answer some questions about what their vision is for the app, what their 10-year plan is, how they plan to crack down on, you know, racially biased content on the app. So, you know, I think it is time for the government to step in. I'm not sure what the ultimate regulations would look like, but I think we deserve to hear about what the long-term plan is and what's happening inside these companies. As we close up this conversation, let's get to some actionable individual advice for the user, or potential user. My first question, I guess, is would you recommend anyone to download these apps? I don't know. I mean, it depends on your personal circumstances. I don't think so. I mean, I think that these things might backfire in the terms sense of, if you're looking for a sense of security, if you're looking for a sense of awareness so that you can be more vigilant and feel more secure in your neighborhood, I think these apps might backfire. I think they might make you feel more paranoid. But for those people who are really hyper-aware, who really would prefer to know rather than not know, I think you have to take everything you see on these apps with a big grain of salt. Look for how many times you see the words, um, unconfirmed. Think about what circumstances somebody might missy some object in a person's hand and mistake it for a weapon. Because I really think that probably a lot of the postings on these apps are overzealous. And I really, really hope that people who have determined for themselves that they really must use this app, take it all with a grain of salt and come into it with a kind of common rational mind. And for my final question, I guess, if not the app, if one of our listeners does want to feel more secure, what should they do? I mean, I think one thing to do is just to be part of a community, you know, to know your neighbors, to build up those community ties. I think one way to feel more secure, to feel like you are, you are part of something larger to yourself, to feel like your neighbors have your back if there's a problem. And I think that might be a more sustainable and a more healthy way than relying on, you know, anonymous reports of a suspicious person from San Francisco Police Guy 331, who's posting all of these unconfirmed reports. Matthew Goreglia, thank you for speaking with me on American Scandal. Great, it's great to be here, thank you. That was my conversation with Matthew Goreglia, a historian and author of the upcoming book, Police and the Empire City. From wondering, this is episode 5 of Edward Snow from American Scandal. In our next series, we look at a standoff that nearly led to nuclear war. In 1962, America and the Soviet Union were locked in a battle for global dominance. But as leaders of both countries work to outmaneuver each other, they set in motion what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. An international confrontation full of gaps, bruised egos, and the potential for a war, unlike any the world had seen. If you like our show, please give us a five star rating and leave a review and be sure to tell your friends. I also have two other podcasts you might like, American History Tellers and Business Movers. Follow on Apple podcasts, Amazon Music, or wherever you're listening right now, or you can listen to new episodes early and add free by subscribing to Wondry Plus in Apple podcasts or in the Wondry app. You'll also find some links and offers from our sponsors in the episode notes. Supporting them helps us keep offering our shows for free. Another way you can support this show is by filling out a small survey at Wondry.com slash survey to tell us what topics we might come next. You can also find us and me on Twitter. Follow me at Lindsay A. Graham, Lindsay with an A, Middle and Initially, and thank you. American Scandal is hosted, edited and executed produced by me Lindsay Graham for Airshin, audio editing by Molly Bond, music by Lindsay Graham. Our senior producer is Gabe Riven. Executive producers are Stephanie Gens, Jenny Lauer-Backman, and Marshall Lewis for Wondry.