Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Policing the Police: How to effectively record police misbehavior

with 2 comments

Here (via the invaluable Ed Brayton) is an Atlantic article by Alexis Madrigal on effective technology that could one day keep you out of prison (as the private prison industry sponsors more sweeps to arrest citizens and jail them: gotta grow profits—the invisible hand of the market demands that).

After the recent Vancouver riots, it became clear that the world is surveiling itself at an unprecedented scale. Angry citizens gave police one million photos and 1,000 hours of video footage to help them track down the rioters. If we aren’t living in a surveillance state run by the government, we’re certainly conducting a huge surveillance experiment on each other.

Which is what makes two new apps, CopRecorder and OpenWatch, and their Web component,, so interesting. They are the brainchildren of Rich Jones, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate who describes himself as “pretty much a hacker to the core.” Flush with cash and time from a few successful forays into the app market, nine months ago Jones decided to devote some of his time to developing what he calls “a global participatory counter-surveillance project which uses cellular phones as a way of monitoring authority figures.”

CopRecorder can record audio without indicating that it’s doing so like the Voice Memos app does. It comes with a built-in uploader to OpenWatch, so that Jones can do “analysis” of the recording and scrub any personally identifying data before posting the audio. He said he receives between 50 and 100 submissions per day, with a really interesting encounter with an authority figure coming in about every day and a half.

To me, something like OpenWatch could help solve a major problem for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking. We’ve still got plenty of people who can bulldog an issue once it’s been flagged, but there are fewer and fewer reporters with deep sourcing in a community, fewer and fewer reporters who have the time to look into a bunch of different things knowing that only one out of a hundred might turn into a big investigation. Perhaps providing better conduits for citizens to flag their own problems can drive down the cost of hard-hitting journalism and be part of the solution for keeping governments honest.

At first, the app did not have grand aspirations. Jones built it for some friends who’d gotten into some trouble with the law and who could have been aided by a recording of their interaction with law enforcement. But Jones’ worldview began to seep into the project. Informed by Julian Assange’s conception of “scientific journalism,” Jones wanted to start collecting datapoints at the interface of citizens and authority figures.

“It’s a new kind of journalism. When people think citizen media, right now they think amateur journalism … I don’t think that’s revolutionary,” Jones told me. “I don’t think that’s what the ’90s cyberutopianists were dreaming of. I think the real value of citizen media will be collecting data.”

Already, CopRecorder is in the hands of 50,000 users, who’ve just happened to stumble on the app one way or another. Jones hopes that they’ll upload their encounters with authority figures so that he can start to build a database of what citizens’ encounters are like in different places. Then, he figures, patterns will emerge and he’ll be able to point out to the world exactly where the powerful are abusing their authority. . .

Continue reading. It’s an important article, and it includes a audio.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2011 at 8:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. Not sure how I feel about this. Have three thoughts:

    1) God help an honest man if he catches a cop in a bad mood; most cops are good men but quite a few are attracted to the power of the job or eventually corrupted by it; I had a friend who was beaten while walking his dog in the West Village, complaining to police about them parking their cars on the sidewalk and making it hard for him to stroll down his block

    2) I don’t have a problem with cameras; when I go outside, I don’t expect any privacy, because, simply, it’s not private; whatever I say and do can be recorded and I’m OK with that, and act appropriately. I don’t feel my rights are being violated, and I know you disagree here

    3) I have big a problem with anarchy today; look at Greece. There must always be laws and they must always be policed, and it’s not the responsibility of the average citizen to do this. And you can never draw a line here, when some gets to be too much; there can’t be any rules about this, it’s all or none.

    I’m leaning towards more cameras being better for all of us; bring ’em on and then sort it out


    29 June 2011 at 10:03 am

  2. My impression of Greece is that anarchy began there long ago, with people flouting tax laws and getting away with it, so that disobeying the law became commonly accepted—white-collar crime in particular, of course, not murder, rape, and robbery. Disobeying the tax laws does breed a certain contempt for government, though, and of course gives the government fewer resources to enforce laws.

    OTOH, the police situation in the US really is getting bad—or else the Internet is enabling more reports of police misbehavior to become visible. And the laws are quite clear in virtually every state that citizens are free to videotape and record police as they conduct their official business, however much the police may dislike this. But we see more and more instances (perhaps due to better coverage, as mentioned) of the police taking the law into their own hands, making up their own rules, and dishing out punishment to people they do not like. That’s got to stop, and this seems a good mechanism to stop it.


    29 June 2011 at 10:18 am

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