New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is seizing recent fears of terrorism to promote an app called See Send (short for "see something send something"). The app allows users to send written reports or photos of suspicious activity directly to law enforcement officials for vetting.
Cuomo cited Paris as the main reason for New Yorkers to be more vigilant. "These new efforts are essential pieces in our fight against terrorism," Cuomo said. "We have stepped up our preparedness in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and we continue to remain vigilant against those who seek to spread fear and violence."
The app, created by a Pittsburgh-based company called My Mobile Witness, is essentially the mobile version of the MTA's popular anti-terrorism slogan, "If you see something, say something." Previously, the company developed technology that allowed users to take photos and store them in a "vault," which could then be uploaded to law enforcement. But the product was primarily used to protect against legal liability, not terrorism. Now the company, which is run by two former real estate executives, is in the vigilance business. Other states, like Colorado, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, are already using the See Send app to receive and review reports of suspicious activity from the public. New York is the latest addition.
Unattended backpacks, not free speech rants
The slogan "If you see something, say something" was created by advertising firm Korey Kay & Partners in the wake of 9/11 for the MTA, which copyrighted and licensed it to 54 different agencies around the world. Since then, questions have been raised about whether heightened vigilance actually reduces terrorism or increases racial profiling. Those questions have gained new relevance in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Beyond reporting unattended bags or bulky jackets, it's unclear what forms of suspicious activity should be reported using the app. Everyone's different, as is everyone's definition of suspicious activity. Racial profiling is an obvious concern. And the news is already full of reports of jittery travelers and commuters singling out Muslims for scrutiny.
In its announcement of the new partnership, Cuomo's office made no mention of profiling, but warned against using the app to opine on terrorism or free speech. "In order to keep the app focused on safety, users should report only suspicious behavior and situations (e.g., an unattended backpack or briefcase in a public place) rather than beliefs, thoughts, ideas, expressions, associations, or speech unrelated to terrorism or other criminal activity," Cuomo's office said in a statement. Also, the state noted that the app isn't intended to replace 9-1-1 as the primary way in which to report emergencies.
Another issue is connectivity. The "see something, say something" slogan is most prominently associated with vigilance on the subway. But less than half of the city's subway stations have wireless connections, which raises questions about the usefulness of using a mobile app to report suspicious activity underground.
The governor's office also forwarded a link to a video that purports to clear up some of those questions. It depicts an open truck full of barrels that read "poison" and "toxic" parked on a city street for four days without raising suspicion. (Whether the scene is real or staged is unclear.) A man is then showing using the app to take a picture of the truck and send it to the authorities.
The MTA also announced it was hiring 46 additional police officers "to increase counterterrorism capabilities at Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, and throughout the Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and Staten Island Railway systems." So if you see a phalanx of heavily armed men on the subway sometime soon, don't report them; they're just there for our protection.