Grand Forks County's Anonymous Crime Reporting App Sounds Like A Terrible Idea


Recently a man was nearly booted from a flight from Syracuse to Philadelphia because, after boarding, he started writing down symbols and notes that looked bizarre to a woman sitting next to him, making her suspect that he might be a terrorist.

It turns out that all Guido Menzio was doing was math. He was writing down some equations or something, because he’s an award-winning economist and that’s the sort of thing they do, and while he was using Arabic numerals, that’s hardly indicative of terrorism, right?

Still, it made his row mate on the plane nervous. She reported him and delayed the flight both were on for hours. She saw something, then she said something, as the ubiquitous government warnings to air travelers say we must.

You could write this incident off as silly, except it really isn’t. It’s chilling, and it is also what happens when the state encourages we citizens to watch and report one another.

Which brings us to Grand Forks County where the local sheriff’s department now wants citizens to report on one another anonymously through an app they can download for their mobile devices.

“In our effort to provide the highest quality service to the community, we wish to keep the public informed and involved,” Sheriff Bob Rost said of the new initiative. “We believe the addition of this new app from tip411 will allow us to do just that while forming a deeper crime-fighting partnership with residents.”

I’d be very surprised if this app did anything to increase public safety in Grand Forks County. What will most assuredly happen is that the app will be used by those looking to harass those they don’t like with false or misleading reports, or paranoiacs who imagine threats lurking behind every tree.

“If you see something say something” is actually a slogan originating with New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (they give permission for its use to other companies/government agencies), but the policy hasn’t worked out all that well for them. “Police officials said 16,191 calls were received last year, down from 27,127 in 2008,” the New York Times reported in 2010.

That seems like an awful lot of wasted resources, responding to calls, with very little return. Can we expect Grand Forks County to get a different result?

Or maybe creating make-work for law enforcement agencies is the unstated goal here?

As security expert Bruce Schneir is fond of saying, “if you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”

More from Schneir on this sort of policy:

After someone reports a “terrorist threat,” the whole system is biased towards escalation and CYA instead of a more-realistic threat assessment.

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to — a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant — now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it’s a false alarm, it’s not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he’s wrong, it’ll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he’ll be praised for “doing his job” and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we’re done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.

You can apply the same thinking to local crime reports made anonymously through a law enforcement-backed app.

If you see something you think is worth reporting to the police, call them about it. Or dial 911.

But the police actively soliciting anonymous reports from the public is, at best, a waste of time and resources and, at worst, a potential catalyst for some very bad situations.