Pennsylvania officials promote 'See Something, Send Something' app

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A maxim emerged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: if you see something, say something. Now, more than a decade later, a new program for smartphones has added a modern addendum: if you see something, send something.

Pennsylvania became the first state to embrace the "See Something, Send Something" smartphone application in January, when state police announced the program's launch. Allegheny County officials, issuing a statement last week in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, reminded residents to remain vigilant, and provided information about the new state police app.

Smartphone users can download the free application, then use it to send photographs or a written note describing suspicious activity to the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center in Harrisburg. There, analysts will review tips and decide if they should be investigated further.

As of May 1, more than 200 photographs or notes have been sent to the police using the application, with about 5 percent of those tips determined to be worthy of further investigation, said police spokeswoman Maria Finn. Most have come from Allegheny, Butler, Dauphin, Lehigh, Lycoming, Schuylkill, Luzerne and Northampton counties.

About a dozen of the total tips received have depicted a person or people, Ms. Finn said. Some people have sent in pictures of their neighbors, saying this person is involved with drugs, and some have just sent pictures of kids playing in a parking lot, Ms. Finn said. None of the approximately 10 tips passed on for further investigation were photo tips; they were written notes.

None of the tips has resulted in any charges filed, she said.

The app brings up the questions that have been asked repeatedly in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks: how far should the U.S. government go to protect its citizens from terrorism, and what security measures go too far?

The debate was reignited in the aftermath of the April 15 Boston Marathon attacks, when two bombs exploded near the race's finish line, killing three and injuring more than 260.

A poll by The New York Times and CBS News, published April 30, surveyed Americans about security issues following the Boston incident, and found that 20 percent of respondents believe the U.S. government, in its efforts to fight terrorism, has gone too far in restricting people's civil liberties. Forty-nine percent believe balance has been "about right" and 26 percent believe the government has not gone far enough. The vast majority of people -- 78 percent -- believe video surveillance cameras in public places are a good idea because they may help reduce the threat of terrorism.

In the spectrum of security measures, the "See Something, Send Something" application is a newer technology, but so far the state police are happy with it.

"Only one tip needs to be of value -- so, we believe this app is certainly a win-win for us," Ms. Finn said in an email.

The app was born in 2008, the creation of a seven-person startup in Monroeville called My Mobile Witness. Originally, the concept was to create a "digital vault," said Marc Anthony, the company's chief operating officer.

A person who felt at risk -- such as a woman being trailed through a dark parking lot -- could snap a picture of the person arousing suspicion. If something happened later, authorities could get a glimpse at what had worried the photographer.

That concept didn't pan out. Instead, the company started looking at how it could connect people to so-called fusion centers, which emerged across the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, to facilitate information sharing between different police agencies.

"We saw what was coming down the road, smartphone wise, and thought there would be a value in connecting people, their handheld computers, and intelligence centers," Mr. Anthony said.

Hence, "See Something, Send Something."

The app can be downloaded by iPhone and Android users, who must provide their name and a phone number, and then their information, along with a geographic marker indicating the location of the tip. It is transferred through My Mobile Witness to the proper intelligence center, based on geographic location.

The tool is intended for acting on a "gut feeling," moments when a person feels something isn't right in his neighborhood, Mr. Anthony said.

"On the continuum of doing nothing, and calling 911, this sits in the middle," he said.

Ron Knight, law enforcement adviser to My Mobile Witness, gave some examples of when to use the app: spotting a person wearing a heavy coat on a warm day, noticing a car circling a special event, or seeing a package on the street. Mr. Knight, who is based in Colorado, is retired after a career in the FBI that focused largely on violent crime cases.

For people in law enforcement, he said, the mindset is "the more public involvement, the better."

But George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched economic and psychological dimensions of privacy, and Sonam Samat, a Ph.D candidate in public policy, said they saw a "creepiness, paranoia factor" to the new app. And they believe, instead of making people feel more safe, it will have the opposite effect.

"It's going to make people feel insecure, because they are looking around for something suspicious, and if you are looking around for something suspicious, you'll likely find it," Mr. Loewenstein said.

The app can also raise concerns about privacy, especially if there is indefinite retention of irrelevant data, said Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., a non-profit research organization.

"I think there is a way that it can be used and can be very targeted and be very effective, but they have to put in safeguards," she said.

One such safeguard put in place by the state police is that, if a tip is sent into the system, and no one looks at it for 24 hours, it is deleted, said Ms. Finn, the spokeswoman, though that is unlikely to happen, because the center is staffed around the clock. If a tip is deemed not valid, it is deleted. If it is deemed valid, it is directed to an appropriate agency and an investigation is opened.

The app's guidelines, as well as state police, do warn that factors such as race, ethnicity, national origin or religious affiliation alone are not suspicious, and the Pennsylvania law prohibiting the filing of false reports applies to the use of the app as well.

Four months into the use of the app, Ms. Finn said the amount of tips the state police have received is manageable.

"We're not overloaded yet," she said.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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