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Are Smartphone Apps Making It Easier To Racially Profile?


Here in the U.S., are smartphone apps making it easier for people to racially profile each other? In New York City, Washington and Oakland, residents and retailers are getting together online to report thefts and suspicious activity in real time. They're using apps with names like GroupMe and SketchFactor, but the information they're sharing doesn't always translate to safer streets. Terrence McCoy reports about this in The Washington Post, and he's with us now.

Thanks for doing this today.

TERRENCE MCCOY: Thanks for having me Kelly.

MCEVERS: And the example you write about is called Operation GroupMe, and it is being used in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood of D.C. called Georgetown. There's a lot of high-end shops there. I mean, tell me what Operation GroupMe was intended to do.

MCCOY: What it is is, it's an app on your phone, and when you see something suspicious, you can just access that app and alert the other people in this group - which is nearly 400 residents, retailers and cops - of that suspicious activity.

MCEVERS: But it's not just, like, messages to each other about people that these people think are suspicious, right?

MCCOY: No, it's not just messages. What the other component of this group is that people oftentimes encourage each other to take pictures or to give some sort of surveillance footage of somebody. So then what happens is that hundreds of images, predominantly of African-Americans, are circulating this group, and oftentimes those people have no idea that their picture was just taken or that they're being discussed - their appearance and such - in this sort of closed forum.

MCEVERS: And so what are some of the examples that you saw being used on this app?

MCCOY: Well, the overwhelming percentage of times that people would refer to somebody as suspicious and specified their race, they were talking about African-Americans. And sometimes, some of those information or tips that people would send out there veered into stereotyping or veered into just racially insensitive language. One person was referred to as ratchet, or other people are talked about smelling of weed. And to critics, this really was, you know, a sign that this is something that's being used for racial profiling.

MCEVERS: Right, but what do some of these people who work in some of these stores say to counter that?

MCCOY: Well, they say that they do not look at race, this is something that they're trained to be able to discern - what separates a shoplifter from somebody else - and that they're looking at just trying to protect the store's merchandise and not necessarily thinking about race at all.

MCEVERS: What are some examples of this kind of profiling where users have been wrong about the people they're writing about?

MCCOY: Well, this isn't unique to D.C., and it's not even a new issue. But what is different about this, and with the advent of modern technology, is it kind of takes away all those former barriers that someone might have to being able to immediately tell each other about their suspicions about someone. One example is, this person was said to be suspicious in one store and they said look out for this guy, he's in distressed jeans, he has tattoos on his neck. And then someone else said, wait a second, he's not suspicious, he was just in my store a little bit ago. He bought two suits. And so people's immediate perceptions of what this is may not be entirely accurate all the time.

MCEVERS: Is there any talk of, you know, dismantling the app and the use of it?

MCCOY: I mean, that's an interesting point because the fact is that this app has true intentions. So what the group behind this app is talking about doing right now is just being able to reinforce what is the best way to use this tool. Because it is just a tool. It's not inherently bad or good either way. And they've been doing processes the entire time of trying to ensure that people are able to clearly describe their suspicion but without having a racial overtone.

MCEVERS: That's Terrence McCoy. He covers poverty, inequality and social justice for The Washington Post.

Thanks so much.

MCCOY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.