TRAVERSE CITY — A new smartphone app will serve as a “two-way communication tool” for the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department and the community, but officials appeared unaware an app could open or close more communication channels than desired.
Sheriff Tom Bensley said AppArrest eventually will replace the department’s other methods of providing information to the public. The free app available for iPhones and Android smartphones allows users to report crime tips and abandoned vehicles, view maps of crime incidents and receive news releases and alerts.
“We’re just trying to push stuff out to a wider audience, and they can interact with us,” Bensley said.
But Bensley and Undersheriff Nate Alger initially didn’t know how much personal information the app gleans from users.
And access to personal information is an issue these days, in light of revelations of widespread government eavesdropping and electronic data collection, hacking of retailers’ data vaults, and websites that routinely collect and sell users personal information.
Privacy is important to consider when smartphone apps can access a user’s contact list, location information and even photographs, said Jeramie Scott, a national security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
“The law enforcement (agency) who may be putting out smartphone apps should really be very specific about what permissions a user will be granting when using an app and specific about what they are using the app for,” Scott said.
Phil Coraci, developer of AppArrest, said about 40 law enforcement agencies in 17 states signed up for the app since the Clare County Sheriff’s Department became the first customer in 2012. He calls it a “two-way communication tool” between police agencies and their communities.
“The community likes it because it’s non-gossip information from the sheriff or chief of police,” he said.
Coraci said the app doesn’t obtain personal information other than phone numbers and carrier data for users who want text message alerts. He said the company doesn’t have the ability to store personal information that can be tracked, and he takes pride in the fact the app has no advertisements.
“They always get a clean, crisp interface,” he said. “There’s no third-party sharing.”
Alger said the app allows users to commend a deputy or make tips. He said if users choose to stay anonymous they can choose to withhold their name and phone number, but noted IP addresses -- a string of numbers that identifies a computer or network-connected device -- do remain visible.
Bensley said the department’s tests with the app went well and pledged the department won’t track users. He said security is always an issue with any new technology and individuals who are concerned can avoid potential issues by not signing up.
“I’ll go back to my statement if anybody has a concern, this isn’t something we’re forcing on them,” he said.
Alger said “we didn’t do any specific research about privacy implications because we were assured by the provider no third party sharing was going to occur.”
But the app could leave individuals who don’t have smartphones with no means of receiving certain information from the sheriff’s department. AppArrest is replacing the sheriff’s department One Call Now system that sends out phone calls and emails with news releases and alerts.
AppArrest costs local taxpayers $1,300 annually, as opposed to One Call Now’s $350 yearly fee. Bensley said the app is worth the extra cost.
Scott said Coraci’s reassurance about privacy is important, but the sheriff’s department needed to come up with a policy.
“There’s a difference between the company saying it’s only going to do ‘XYZ’ and law enforcement saying they’ll only do ‘XYZ’ through a set policy that is public,” Scott said. “There’s more weight if police set a clear policy.”
AppArrest is available for download through the iPhone and Android application stores. Users should search for “Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office.”