Privacy SOS

A “suspicious activity reporting” app or a spy app?

Like the West Virginia fusion center before it, the Delaware spy center — officially the Delaware Information and Analysis Center (DIAC) — "now offers a mobile app to report suspicious activities in real-time by attaching a photo, sending location information, or entering details about suspicious vehicles or persons," says a press release on a state homeland security website.

According to the Google Android market description, the app allows users to:

Capture a photo from the app or use one that already exists on the device
Automatically find and use the phone’s location or enter an address
Report detailed subject and vehicle descriptions

The state claims that people who download the app to report "suspicious activities" to the fusion center may do so anonymously, but the permissions directory for the application spells out a number of categories of extremely personal information it allows the government to collect about anyone who downloads it.

After installation of the app, the fusion center can manipulate the camera application on a phone whenever it is running, allowing it "at any time to collect images the camera is seeing." The app can also tell the fusion center exactly where you are at all times, because by downloading it you've given it permission to monitor your GPS location through your phone.

Where you are tells the government a lot about who you are, making highly suspect Delaware's claim that the app can be used anonymously. You probably sleep at home on most nights, for example. If the Delaware fusion center wanted to know who you were, they could just trace your physical location each morning at 4 AM, and by determining where you live would have a pretty good lead onto who you are. But maybe you live with five people. An easy way of determining whether it's you or your roommate at the other end of that phone would be to pair the 4 AM data point with your location information during the day, when you're at work. Again, where you are says a lot about who you are.

But that's not all. The Delaware fusion center can monitor the metadata for all incoming and outgoing calls on phones that contain the snitch application. Google says the operators "can determine the phone number and serial number of [the] phone, whether a call is active, the number that call is connected to and the like." Just like your location information, who you talk to reveals a lot about you.

If the police obtaining your real-time location information without a warrant, copying your call records and secretly taking photos and videos of what your phone's camera sees isn't enough to dissuade you from downloading the snitch app, consider that it also allows them to secretly delete or otherwise "modify" the contents of your phone.

So don't download this application unless you want the Delaware fusion center — and therefore potentially numerous other government agencies — to have access to your phone's camera, call history and location information.

App or no app, we should all beware of governments telling us to snitch on our neighbors and community members. As studies have shown, suspicious activity reports hardly ever lead to investigations of real criminal activity. More often than not, they are an outlet for people's prejudices and irrational fears — and an inroad to unaccountable government spying.

These reports can inflict real world harms on real people. Watch what happened when one man was falsely accused of acting "suspiciously" here in Massachusetts.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

Read more about suspicious activity reporting.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.