Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 9, 2014

Editorial: Law enforcement app raises many questions

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Let the user beware.

That’s an apt warning for anyone who might consider adding a smartphone app newly embraced by Grand Traverse County sheriff’s officials who contend they want to expand communications between the department and public.

The new app - dubbed AppArrest - is free to users, available for iPhones and Android smartphones, and lets users report crime tips and abandoned vehicles, view maps of crime incidents and receive news releases and alerts.

AppArrest is touted as a “two-way communication tool” that’s supposed to replace the department’s other pubic information vehicles. But there are plenty of questions created by Sheriff Tom Bensley’s decision to veer into app world, not the least of which center on user privacy, including the developer’s and/or law enforcement’s potential access to user data such as telephone numbers and IP addresses.

Bensley showed little interest in asking those questions of the app’s developer before he inked a deal for $1,300 annually. Bensley admitted he never considered what AppArrest’s developer might do with phone numbers and other personal data the company might glean from users who are forced to go the app route if they want to know anything going on with Grand Traverse sheriff’s operations.

AppArrest developer Phil 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.

Just take his word for it.

Sheriff’s officials said users who choose to stay anonymous can withhold their name and phone number from AppArrest, but noted IP addresses - a string of numbers that identifies a computer or network-connected device - remain visible. And traceable.

Bensley pledged his officers won’t snoop on AppArrest users, but it’d be nice to see that in writing, perhaps as an official policy.

Bensley responded with a verbal shrug when asked about the recourse for those who might not trust law enforcement or an app developer to appropriately handle a user’s personal information.

“(I)f anybody has a concern, this isn’t something we’re forcing on them,” Bensley said.

But this purported two-way communication tool is a one-way street - a dead-end, actually - for those who don’t tote smartphones. That means all this information Bensley said he wants to share won’t go to non-smartphone users. Bensley said AppArrest will replace press releases issued to the local news media, for example.

Frankly, that press release program was mediocre because law enforcement officials largely wall off the public from reviewing most crime investigation and arrest reports. Sheriff’s department officials and others select for the public palate only what they want to release, and not what media professionals and the general public might consider newsworthy. It’s a backwards system chiefly designed to protect public law enforcement agencies from public scrutiny.

But with AppArrest, the public’s likely to know even less about what’s going on with the sheriff’s department than before, particularly if the public or media members, don’t use smartphones.

Questions about AppArrest matter because there’s a whole lot of personal data-mining going on these days, and it’s typically conducted by companies who tout “free” phone apps that in truth are designed to gather, store and ultimately share or sell that information. And federal, state and local law enforcement agencies increasingly are searching for ways to boost their intel, and they know well that cell phone logs are a treasure trove of potential leads for whatever they may deem investigation-worthy.

No one is accusing the sheriff’s department of conspiring to set up a mini-spy network that targets Grand Traverse County residents. Bensley contends the department is “just trying to push stuff out to a wider audience, and they can interact with us.”

Maybe so. But access to personal information is a major issue these days, and the sheriff’s no-effort background search, combined with take-it-or-leave-it approach to AppArrest, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Public officials ought to embrace policies that distribute more information to more people, and not just to those who have technological advantages.

Bensley needs to come up with a better plan to disburse public information that can be accessed by all Grand Traverse residents.