The Problem with Crowdsourcing Crime Reporting
There has been some excitement about the idea of using technology to address the problems of the Mexican Drug War. As someone involved in technology, I find it inspiring that other techies are trying to do something to end the conflict. However, I also worry when I read ideas based on flawed assumptions. For example, the assumption that “good guys” just need a safe way to report the “bad guys” to the cops reduces the Mexican reality to a kid’s story, where lines are easily and neatly drawn.
So, here are a few reasons why building tools to enable citizens to report crime in Mexico is problematic and even dangerous.
- Anonymity does not depend only on encryption. Criminals do not need to rely on advanced crypto-techniques when information itself is enough to figure out who leaked it. Similar ideas are being discussed by researchers trying to figure out how to identiy future Wikileaks-like collaborators, something they call Fog Computing. The point is, the social dynamics around the Drug War in Mexico mean that people are exposed when they post something local. In an era of big data, it’s easy to piece things together, even if the source is encrypted. And, sadly, when terror is your business, getting it wrong doesn’t matter as much.
- Criminal organizations, law enforcement, and even citizens are not independent entities. Organized crime has co-opted individuals, from the highest levels of government down to average citizens working with them on the side– often referred to as “halcones.”
- Apprehensions do not lead to convictions. According to some data, “78% of crimes go unreported in Mexico, and less than 1% actually result in convictions.” Mexico is among those countries with the highest indices of impunity, even with high-profile cases such as the murder of journalists. All this is partly because of high levels of corruption.
- Criminal organizations have already discovered how to manipulate law enforcement against their opponents–there is even a term for it: “calentar la plaza“– the sudden increase of extreme violence in locations controlled by the opposite group, with the sole purpose of catching the attention of the military, which eventually takes over, and weakens the enemy.
The failure of crowdsourcing became evident only a few weeks ago with a presidential election apparently plagued with irregularities. Citizens actively crowdsourced reports of electoral fraud and subsequently uploaded the evidence to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Regardless of whether those incidents would affect the final result of the election, the institutions in charge seem to have largely ignored the reports. One can only imagine what would happen with the report of highly profitable crimes like drug trafficking.
Crowdsourcing is not entirely flawed in the Mexican context, though. We have seen people in various Mexican cities organize organically to alert one another of violent events, in real time. But these urban crisis management networks do not need institutions to function. However, law enforcement does, unless one is willing to accept lynching and other types of crowd-based law enforcement.
In sum, as Damien Cave mentioned, what Mexico needs is institutions, and the people willing to change the culture of impunity. Technologies that support this kind of change would be more effective than those imagined with a “first world” mindset.
Thanks to danah boyd for helping me think through some of these ideas.