When police officers in Los Angeles used Apple’s ‘Find my iPhone’ app to locate an armed mobile phone thief who had forgotten to switch off the tracking device, it was seen by many as a sign of the crime-fighting potential of new smartphone technology.
Since 2011, when the Los Angeles case hit global headlines, apps have become ever more popular, now coming to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives. And with it, a new generation of safety and surveillance technology has arrived, from online panic buttons to digital rape alarms and gunshot-detecting maps.
But questions remain about the long-term funding of such projects, with the current revenue models – mostly philanthropic – seen by many as unsustainable. Concerns have also been raised about the safety of such apps, with critics claiming they encourage bystanders to linger around dangerous incidents.
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Many anti-crime apps have taken the form of safety trackers – the popular Companion app, created by five University of Michigan students in 2015, uses GPS positioning to allow concerned family and friends to track loved ones as they walk home late at night, while developers in India attempted to tackle the country’s well-publicised rape epidemic with a ‘panic button’ app, which immediately sends the user’s location to a local police station.
Others focus on encouraging users to report crime, with a particular stress on historically neglected offences. ‘Kick it Out’, created in the UK in 2013, allows football fans to confidentially report racist incidents at matches, while Self Evident enables UK crime victims to skip the hassle of phoning police.
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A key to the success of crime-reporting apps is the anonymity they allow, believes James Wise, partner at London-based VC Balderton Capital.
“Particularly with incidents of hate crime,” Wise said, “anonymity helps a lot, and users feel that an app is more anonymous than a phone call.”
Apps are also more likely to turn the reporting of crime into a commonplace habit, Wise thinks, due to the amount of time we spend on our smartphones. The effortlessness of punching a few commands into an electronic app, it is hoped, will counter a historic reluctance to inform police about certain crimes.
It was this desire to make crime-reporting easy that led a group of Oxford University students to create the ‘First Response’ app in 2015, which provides emergency information to victims of rape, encouraging them to preserve scientific evidence and telling them how best to contact police.
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Like many such apps, First Response was funded philanthropically (by Oxford University’s IT Innovation fund), highlighting one of the main challenges of anti-crime technology: a lack of sustainable funding.
Indeed, not all anti-crime apps are funded through sponsorship and user payment, Wise said, with many relying on some form of online philanthropy, or operating on an “outcome-payment” model, whereby police forces agree to fund the service only after it has proven crime-reducing results.
And UK police funding for new – and arguably experimental – technology is in famously short supply, with a Metropolitan Police report from 2013 lamenting that officers in the capital were still forced to use their radio to access basic information about historical crimes, when almost everybody else in the capital could find the same material with a simple touch of their smartphone.
Police technology has improved considerably since 2013, of course, but the principle laid out by then budget chairman John Biggs – that with public debate always focusing on police numbers rather than police productivity, technological funding will always receive short shrift – still very much stands.
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But there is much reason for optimism around the funding of anti-crime tech, says Dave Haynes of London-based Seedcamp, which has recently invested in ThirdEye, a surveillance technology that uses computer vision to detect theft in retail stores.
Large retail outlets will happily spend millions on technology like ThirdEye, Haynes believes, which by detecting a theft before it even happens, is “inherently cost saving”.
Another lingering problem of anti-crime apps, critics claim, is that they may encourage their users to remain in dangerous situations to capture footage on their smartphone cameras, when a quick exit would be advised instead.
Apple removed controversial crime-reporting app Vigilante (aptly named, critics believed) in November of last year, after concerns the service – which aimed to alert nearby users whenever a crime was reported – would prompt retaliatory violence and vigilante justice.
Joel Caplan, Associate Professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, is one such critic, saying the apps “invite a level of burden on the user to put themselves in harm’s way to gather evidence”.
Caplan is also worried that the apps send “mixed signals”: young people are generally advised to keep their phones hidden, especially if walking through crime-prone areas. The apps, in contrast, require smartphones to be out.
With apps now designed for almost every human activity – we don’t say “there’s an app for that” for nothing – the question is not, it seems, whether they should be used to fight crime, but how they can do so in the safest and most responsible manner.
Many tech observers are looking to drones and augmented reality as the next big law enforcement tools, so the progress of anti-crime technology in future decades certainly looks exciting.