Neighborhood Security Apps Fuel Racist Profiling.

What can we do about it?

An advertisement for neighborhood security app Nextdoor.

Jeffrey Shen

May 15, 2019

This blog post was originally written for a computer science course at Phillips Academy.

Over the past few years, hyper-local neighborhood social media apps like Citizen, Ring Neighbors (owned by Amazon), and Nextdoor have surged in popularity. And while these apps are marketed as making neighborhoods safer and more connected, they have also been met with concern that they amplify racial profiling, especially in upper-class, often gentrified neighborhoods.

The apps function just like any other social network: users can post updates about crime, safety, strangers, or other “suspicious” activity for their neighbors to comment on and share, and with Amazon Neighbors, users can also share surveillance footage from the associated Ring cameras. While not explicitly racist, these vague categorizations—”suspicious” or a “stranger”—make it easy for users to act upon existing racial biases. In one Nextdoor update (see below), a user reported a man with dreads and “3 other less desirables” who were just biking around the neighborhood.

And in another post on Amazon Neighbors (see below), a user shared a photo of a Black man simply walking outside with the caption “I find this odd. I’m not sure if he is photograph my house or my neighbors.”

There exist countless other examples of these apps’ users making unsubstantiated accusations, mostly towards people of color. Though the blatant racial profiling is of course troubling, it is far more worrisome how these apps amplify the individual prejudices of the users. Because Nextdoor, Neighbors, and Citizen are fundamentally social-media apps, updates about “suspicious” people of color are easily amplified and distributed. Especially in homogenous white communities, the ability to report “strangers”—who are more likely to just be people of color minding their business—exacerbates the exclusion of minorities in these neighborhoods. And since all these apps connect directly with local authorities, these often unfounded racial accusations can quickly escalate into encounters between people of the color and police, who are proven to exercise wide racial disparities in enforcement.

While racial stereotyping obviously existed prior to these apps, the technology and algorithms behind them clearly amplify existing inequalities by creating a culture where reporting “suspicious” people (of color) is both normal and convenient. So what can we do about it? How can these apps be improved to be more equitable?

Should Neighborhood Security Apps Even Exist?

Ultimately, it seems impossible to completely eradicate racial profiling, and there is not even any proof that so-called “smart neighborhoods” reduce crime. The unparalleled level of power given to users who might racially profile is troubling, especially amidst dystopian claims that Ring Neighbors might be adding a facial recognition database of “suspicious” people. Though some might suggest that it is not the companies’ responsibility to monitor apps for racial profiling, the potential for these apps to result in incarceration, extrajudicial killings, or plain discrimination is too serious to ignore: these apps need to be regulated better.

Further Reading

  1. The rise of fear-based social media like Nextdoor, Citizen, and now Amazon’s Neighbors
  2. Racial Profiling Is Still A Problem On Nextdoor
  3. How Nextdoor Addressed Racial Profiling on Its Platform
  4. Amazon’s Home Security Company Is Turning Everyone Into Cops
  5. Neighborhood Security Apps Are Making Us Wildly Paranoid
  6. Shooting Focuses Attention on a Program That Seeks to Avoid Guns

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