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OpenWatch, a Citizen Surveillance Tool to Watch the People Watching Us

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, June 22 2011

Somewhere in California, a man is at a DUI checkpoint. He has left his car and is being asked to take a field sobriety test, which he refuses.

The moment is tense. The officers at this checkpoint are clearly not used to having someone question their commands. Asked to justify demanding the test, the officer stops and stutters. It's a checkpoint, he says. You're being stopped because you're at a checkpoint. Negotiations over safety, security and personal rights ensue.

"I don't want to do your test. I'll take a blow," says the citizen, referring to a breathalyzer, "but I'm not going to do your test."

There's a pause. The officer pulls out a breathalyzer.

"Stand in front and put your feet together," the officer says.

The citizen objects.

"I don't want to --"

"That's for my safety," the officer snaps. "Otherwise I'll put you in handcuffs. I'm calling the shots here, not you, got it?"

The whole event was documented, in secret, by the driver who was stopped. He was using OpenWatch, a mobile application that turns any Android phone or iPhone into a surreptitious recording device. The app's creator, Rich Jones, a 23-year-old freelance mobile developer, says the goal of OpenWatch is to map the use and abuse of power by law enforcement officials throughout the country.

"By all of us together, creating data, we can get a real picture of how enforcement goes on in this country, and how it varies from region to region," Jones told me, "and we can only do that if the people get involved."

After OpenWatch records an interaction, lurking among the background processes on a mobile phone, it gives the user the option to upload the audio file to OpenWatch's servers. Jones scours the uploads for posts of significance — he gets about 50 a day, he says — and, when something of interest comes through the transom, he cleans it of information identifying the citizen, then posts it online. An update to OpenWatch offers similar functionality for surreptitious recording of video.

The result is the kind of curious inversion of surveillance society we've seen in other Internet-enabled activism, like HollaBack, the networked nonprofit fighting harassment of women on the street, or I Paid a Bribe, the Indian site for reporting instances where government officials demanded bribery. Persistent openness, the thinking goes, rewards good behavior as well as punishes bad actors.

While this approach leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to context — citizens can volunteer details like geolocation information and comments about the circumstances around the recording, but they aren't required — the idea is that some encounters should clearly speak for themselves. Provided, of course, that what appears to be happening really is what's happening — who's to say if some of the interactions uploaded to OpenWatch already were or weren't staged?

"This isn't a project to shame the police or anything like that," Jones told me. "It's more about collecting as much data as possible and collecting context for misconduct. Mundane encounters are just as important to collect as misconduct."

About the OpenWatch Project from OpenWatch on Vimeo.

In fact, several of the published audio files — some mundane, some not — may have come from law enforcement sources. One is a shift change in Twinsburg, Ohio, for instance, in which officers discuss the weather. In another, officers in Willows, Calif., discuss not wanting to "rat" on fellow officers. In a third, officers in New Jersey talk about arrests in which they recovered guns.

"We get a lot of submissions from police," Jones said. "A significant percentage are from authority figures themselves using the application, and I'm not certain why. It seems that some of them don't understand the intention of the project — and maybe they do, and they're just using it to protect themselves from the bureaucracy they're facing in their own departments, or against a false charge of misconduct."

The tool is also used in one other way he didn't expect — people seem to be using OpenWatch to record conversations relevant to divorce proceedings, he said. (Those don't make it online.)

Jones is hoping to strike up partnerships with media in various states as part of an effort to add context to the recordings he has — addressing precisely the problems around verification and background that he's facing now. But he also acknowledges his project is on shaky legal ground. The law on surreptitious recording varies from state to state, for one, and laws around recording law enforcement officials also vary. Last year, motorcyclist Anthony Graber was charged with a felony after posting video of his encounter with a Maryland state trooper to YouTube — in Maryland, surreptitiously recording audio of an interaction without the other person's consent is a felony. As Jones pointed out to me, there is a similar statute in Illinois that makes surreptitious recording a felony punishable by 75 years in prison. At least one other state makes it illegal to record police officers.

I asked him if he's personally concerned about liability he might or might not have.

"I haven't really been worrying about it. I've been worrying about it a little bit but not enough to not keep doing it," Jones told me. "I'd like to think that the technology has a neutrality about it. I guess lawyers could argue either way."

OpenWatch, at its core, is about leveling the playing field, he said. His position is that authorities are quick to use the rhetoric, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

"If those are going to be the rules of the game," he later added, "then let's play it and lets see how you like it."

As for the guy at that sobriety checkpoint, Jones says that a legal analysis has provided evidence that the officers he dealt with overstepped their bounds. He doesn't have all the facts, but thinks a lawyer in California is pursuing a case — like OpenWatch itself, this development is very new. It will take more time for the real consequences to play out.

This post has been updated.

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