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Cell Phones To The Rescue

In his annual State of the City address last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city will begin to equip 911 call centers “to receive digital images and videos from cell phones… If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition you'll be able to transmit images to 911, or online to NYC.GOV,” making it easier for police to identify the criminal (or the landlord) later. The mayor envisions similar technology for non-emergency calls to 311, which would allow New Yorkers to document visually the quality of life concerns in their neighborhoods.

The mayor introduced this proposal as a way to “build stronger cooperation between the public and the police,” through “empower[ing] more New Yorkers to step forward and join the fight against crime.”

Following the speech, criminal justice coordinator John Feinblattt said this will be a “multi-year effort to bring law enforcement into cyberspace,” but there was no mention of a specific timeline, specific budget allocation, or a vendor.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed that “no other city in the world” offers residents the capability to transmit digital files to 911 centers. This is untrue. Small cities in states from Connecticut to Alaska are already working with a Connecticut- based company, PowerPhone, to provide such an enhancement to 911 service. State governments in Indiana, Tennessee and Vermont are also exploring this technology.

A more accurate formulation than the mayor’s might have been that no other big city is contemplating such digital improvements to 911 and 311 – except that Philadelphia’s City Council proposed such a system six days after Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. And the most famous use to date of cell phone images to aid the police is probably in London, where such images helped police in July 2005 identify the attackers in the bombings there.

One significant concern for New York is that, if this crime-reporting method proves popular, the volume of photos and videos could overwhelm the 911 or 311 systems. Feinblatt is not worried; he says that 911 operators are “managing information all the time,” implying that how operators receive information does not matter.

Assuming that Feinblatt is correct, and that the technical infrastructure proves capable of handling the volume of photos and videos, other questions remain. For example, how exactly will people transmit them? The current assumption is that callers will dial 911 as normal, and then receive instructions from an operator about how to send the photo or video. This would allow operators to manage the flow of digital images, but force callers to go through another step. Alternatively, people could transmit digital files to 911 operators directly, without needing to call first.

Even if the technical and logistical concerns were resolved promptly, the legal status of cell phone photos and videos is not clear. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel believes that the digital files would be legal, because “private persons -- not the state -- [are] taking pictures of criminal behavior and forwarding it”. But Adina Schwartz, professor of law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, cautions that such photos or videos may not be admissible in court unless their creators are willing to “authenticate” the material on the witness stand. In New York City and elsewhere, governments seeking to enhance the technological capabilities of their emergency response systems are forging new legal ground.

Well before Mayor Bloomberg announced this initiative, New Yorkers had begun to use their cell phone cameras to bring criminals to justice. In 2005, Thao Nguyen took a picture of restaurant owner Dan Hoyt exposing himself on the R train, and posted it online. Hoyt, who had been convicted of public lewdness previously, surrendered to police .

Holla Back NYC offers another flavor of cell phone justice. The site allows women to post the pictures of people who harass them in public online. Their goal is shame, not jail. Holla Back NYC has companion sites in cities throughout the United States.

John Feinblatt seems to see these grassroots approaches as a model for the law enforcement community, which has not kept up.

Others are not so sure.

“You have to wonder what kinds of hoaxes or vendettas a 'creative' individual armed with Photoshop might be able to put over on the city,” remarks Digital Smarts blogger. “Only time will tell.” “Jamais Cascio” of Open The Future writes: “As much as it has the potential for frivolous or malicious use -- just as regular 911 calls do -- it has the potential to give first responders a better idea of an emergency situation, allowing the professionals and the civilians to work together to evaluate conditions” but then suggests it also “raises uncomfortable questions.”

“I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories but there certainly seems to be a trend for increasing state surveillance,” writes “I-eclectica” in a blog post entitled Crime Fight Or Big Brother. Citizens “seem to be more frequently enlisted as informers, from... sharing their security footage with relevant authorities to now using mobile phones and computers. One would think that our long collective experiences with authoritarian and suppressive regimes would make us more sensitive to and critical about measures that, on the surface, look harmless and sensible.”

But writing in the Daily News, digital security expert Bruce Schneider pronounced the ability to send photographs and videos to 911 “a great idea that can make us all safer. Often the biggest problem a 911 operator has is getting enough good information from the caller. Sometimes the caller is emotionally distraught. Sometimes there's confusion and background noise. Sometimes there's a language barrier. Giving callers the opportunity to use all the communications tools at their disposal will help operators dispatch the right help faster.

“Still images and videos can also help identify and prosecute criminals. Memories are notoriously inaccurate. Photos aren't perfect, but they provide a different sort of evidence - one that, with the right safeguards, can be used in court.

“The worry is that New York will become a city of amateur sleuths and snitches, turning each other in to settle personal scores or because of cultural misunderstandings. But the 911 service has long avoided such hazards. Falsely reporting a crime is itself a serious crime, which discourages people from using 911 for anything other than a true emergency.”


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