Paris, France, November 2020 – Can crime alerting applications improve victim support? Can they provide reliable information on the dark number of crime and on feelings of insecurity? What are their legal, ethical and social implications? These were the main questions addressed during a web conference organised by Efus’ Security & Innovation working group, on 30 October. The event gathered representatives of local and regional authorities, science and research organisations, and civil society.
Tools to empower citizens and support them when they fall victim to a crime
Participants discussed how mobile crime alerting applications can help victims by clarifying their legal rights, providing information on support services, empowering vulnerable groups and potentially encouraging more people to report crime, thus shedding light on previously unreported aspects of crime.
Jorge González-Conejero, Executive Director of the Institute of Law and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, presented RightsApp, which aims to empower European citizens who are victim of crime in any EU country by offering them information on their rights without leading them through a maze of legal jargon. The application is multilingual, citizen-centric and user-friendly, and especially helpful to those that fall victim to a crime abroad. It offers different services: emergency calls, tailored information regarding victim rights and information on victim support centres, consulates and embassies.
Presented by Robin Caroff of the French NGO Résonantes, which is specialised in combatting violence against women and girls, AppElles allows women and girls who find themselves in danger to get help through an innovative and secured alert technology. The app also offers real-time support through a directory of professional assistance and crisis helplines for victims and witnesses. An additional library of resources offers an interactive map and links to other support services.
A multi-stakeholder collaboration
Both applications have been conceived in collaboration with a range of stakeholders: for Rights App the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the Barcelona Red Cross, the Catalan Victimology Centre, the Department of Justice of the government of Catalonia, and the City of Barcelona, for AppElles 29 organisations including the French government, several French local and regional authorities, Cap Gemini, Facebook, BNP Paribas and various civil society organisations working for gender equality and against gender violence. The latter also involves local security actors. When a user enters a supervised area, they are asked for authorization to route alerts to the area’s central security desk. The alert data is kept only for 15 days and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance is ensured through collaboration with a specialised law firm.
Risk of discrimination and insufficient data protection
While the information gathered through such mobile applications could inform policy responses that are better tailored to victims’ needs, there are multiple risks. The insights they provide into feelings of insecurity must be considered as an aggregation of subjective perceptions, and as such vulnerable to bias. Conscious or unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory practices that stigmatize specific neighbourhoods or groups. A potential lack of diversity in an application’s user-base may exacerbate this issue. When law enforcement agencies use this data without checking for bias and insufficient sample size it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where increased police presence leads to increased arrest rates.
Applications that rely on an open community of users to receive and respond to alerts can be infiltrated by people with malevolent intentions who can access the victim’s location. There is also the risk that members develop a “superhero complex,” particularly in the case of women’s personal safety. In terms of data protection, there is the danger that anonymized data could be compromised through evolving analytic techniques. Another risk to keep in mind concerns the potential repurposing and sale of data if it is not properly protected.
Some ideas on how to mitigate risks
- Collaboration with local authorities and security and prevention actors ensures that the applications offer relevant contact details and services. They can bring greater visibility to existing victim support services and ensure that information is accessible to a broader public.
- Acknowledge that statistics based on the data provided by crime alerting applications are not evidence-based but rather add an additional layer to our understanding of the local security situation and the feelings of insecurity of different groups.
- A user-friendly, multilingual application ensures that the services and information it provides are accessible to a larger group of users. A diverse user-base can ensure that the data is representative of all groups of population.
- Crime alerting applications can use a closed community of trusted contacts and thus prevent instances of misuse or vigilantism.
> You can follow Efus’ Security & Innovation working group on Efus Network. If you would like to join the group, please contact Pauline Lesch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Pilar De La Torre (email@example.com)
> More information on RightsApp
> More information on AppElles