Bay Area Transit’s Suspicious Activity Reporting App Causes Racial Profiling, Privacy Concerns

A human rights agency found that users disproportionately complained about activities by African-Americans, whether the activities were criminal or not.

by Erin Baldassari, East Bay Times / August 16, 2016

(TNS) — The San Francisco East Bay's largest bus operator on Friday announced the release of a smartphone app that allows riders to more easily report suspicious or disruptive behavior, but civil rights groups are worried the tool will lead to more racial profiling and less privacy, not a safer ride.

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) officials said the free app, called "TipNow-AC Transit," allows riders to be "an extra set of onboard eyes and ears helping to promote rider safety and system security." Riders can choose between a number of icons, including "disruptive behavior," "theft," "suspicious activity," "vandalism" and "unattended package," to anonymously file reports.

Those reports will get routed to an AC Transit employee, who will then determine whether to alert Alameda County Sheriff's deputies of the behavior or activity, said AC Transit board President Christian Peeples.

The agency was able to take advantage of a special promotional offer for the app by Santa Clara-based company, Resiligence Inc., paying only $10,000 for the one-year pilot program, according to a 2015 staff report. Comparatively, BART paid an average $66,250 per year for a similar smartphone-based reporting app from a different provider, the report said. AC Transit staff noted the promotional price as a main advantage for adopting the program.

Peeples said that in addition to possibly providing a faster response to complaints, the app will allow the transit agency to gather more evidence in cases that are criminally prosecuted, especially at bus stops, where there may not be cameras present.

But rather than offering safer rides, Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said he was concerned about how the app would be used. A 2015 review of BART's smartphone app, BART Watch, by the East Bay Express revealed that users disproportionately complained about activities by African-Americans, whether the activities were criminal or not. Norris fears AC Transit will see similar results.

"It's basically creating a vehicle for people to racially profile fellow riders," Norris said. "When we have an idea of safety based on suspicion and surveillance, it doesn't create the kind of safety we want or need, and it has resulted in a system of incarceration and poverty."

The ACLU of Northern California has also raised privacy concerns with the BART Watch app, which takes advantage of an iPhone feature called "background refresh" to gather information from users' phones even when the app is closed, said Matt Cagle, a policy attorney for the ACLU. He said users should be assured that the information gathered from the app's developer won't be immediately turned over to law enforcement.

"There should be safeguards in place to make sure data submitted by users don't become part of a suspicious reporting database," Cagle said.

Peeples admitted the transit agency does not currently have a policy governing app users' privacy but said it is working on developing a plan.

"It'll likely take six months," he said. "We'll bring in the ACLU and all those folks and get comments on what (the privacy policy) will be."

It's also unclear how the TipNow pilot program will be evaluated. A spokesman for AC Transit did not respond to a question about what performance measures the agency will use to evaluate the pilot's efficacy. Peeples couldn't recall receiving those metrics, either, but said staff would bring back a report to the board as the pilot program moves forward.

©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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