It’s quite hard to tell whether the Vigilante app is a functioning business or a teaser for a new episode of dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror.
Launched in New York last week, it’s designed to alert nearby users whenever a crime is reported to 911. Users can use that information to avoid the danger area – or go and film it with their smartphone to broadcast the unfolding crime.
“What if everyone within a quarter mile of every reported crime were immediately made aware of it. What if there were a camera on every crime. What if transparency existed – if we all knew where crime was occurring and how it was being resolved. Would crime as we know it still exist?” asks the company in a Medium post announcing the app’s launch.
The app, created by a company called Sp0n (its sparse website says it makes “disruptive consumer mobile apps”) was swiftly kicked off the App Store by Apple, which had “concerns” about its content, according to a note on Vigilante.Live.
The developers believe that opening up crime reporting in this way empowers people. “The closed system excludes the community while the open system informs and empowers citizens,” it says.
At the heart of Vigilante is the belief that mass surveillance makes the world a better, fairer place through the rhetorical question: can injustice survive transparency?
“The lens of the camera is incapable of lying. When we are able to look at a situation from multiple angles, the truth emerges. Transparency is the single most powerful tool against crime and injustice, and we believe it will rebuild cooperation towards a shared vision. Cooperation, in turn, will lead to safer communities, better cities, and a stronger nation.”
It’s a utopian vision, but one that’s a little confused. On one hand Vigilante talks about restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, which suggests that video streaming could help document and prevent police brutality. Yet on the other hand, it’s precisely the kind of tool that could be abused to intimidate and harass innocent minorities with the kind of racial profiling that became rampant on the Nextdoor app.
“It raises all these questions around consent and sharing,” said Sam Gregory, programme director of Witness, which trains and supports activists to document human rights violations.
He is concerned about the framing of the app, down to the name and promotional materials. “Vigilantism is a very different idea to being an ethical witness to what’s happening,” he said.
“These types of tools tend to have racial bias and only focus on very visible incidents. Things you can see in the street, as we saw with Nextdoor and Sketchfactor,” he said. In this way, the app encourages the public incrimination of innocent-until-proven-guilty people at the scene.
The lens of the camera may be incapable of lying, but there’s always bias in the selection of subject matter. When untrained bystanders start to make judgement calls over who is at fault, there’s broad scope for miscarriage of justice. He cites research into the filming of violence against transgender people and how it is shared and engaged with online as entertainment.
“There’s a tradeoff between visibility of a crime and making people who didn’t want to be on camera into a public spectacle,” he said.
At the same time, smartphone-equipped vigilantes could find themselves escalating a situation the police could have dealt with easily or putting themselves in danger.
As the New York police department told the Verge, “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cell phone.”
Apple doesn’t comment on individual decisions, but the App Store has strict rules about user-generated content apps to prevent abuse or bullying. The company also rejects apps if they risk physical harm, which could be possible if a load of vigilantes took their pitchforks to a crime scene.
“Our core mission is empowering communities with technology to create safer neighborhoods,” a Sp0n spokeswoman said in a statement.
“The team is working with Apple to resolve the issue and they are confident the app will be made available in the near future. Vigilante will introduce an Android version of the app in the upcoming weeks with plans to expand in additional cities later this year.”