What’s up with WhatsApp Neighbourhood Watch? Ommelander1984Uploader [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

What’s up with WhatsApp Neighbourhood Watch?

WhatsApp neighbourhood prevention teams are increasingly popular in the Netherlands. However, there are moral implications related to the technologically mediated practices of those teams.

More and more neighbourhoods in the Netherlands welcome visitors with warning signs attached to lampposts reading: “Attention! WhatsApp Neighbourhood Prevention”. Neighbourhood prevention teams are immensely popular in the Netherlands as forms of citizen participation in local safety and security. These teams of residents, who actively patrol the neighbourhood or keep a watchful eye on potential security threats, are meant to deter potential burglars or criminals. Via smart phones and social media, team members communicate about the suspicious situations they encounter with fellow residents and with the local police.

The growth of neighbourhood prevention teams coincides with an increase in neighbourhood cohesion enabled by social media. In 2017, half of all Dutch neighbourhoods communicated through a neighbourhood app. So, unsurprisingly, neighbourhood prevention teams turned to social media such as WhatsApp for their communication. The relationship to the technology that enables these teams is so strong that the official term for this form of citizen participation in local safety becameWhatsApp Neighbourhood Prevention.

Nevertheless, upon closer attention to the role of technologies in security practicesand based on empirical research we argue that there is more to be said about WhatsApp and perhaps it is not the best choice for neighbourhood watch groups in the long run.

For one, recent research in four cities in the Netherlands showed that WhatsApp neighbourhood prevention teams, although beneficial for the social cohesion in neighbourhoods, appear to have limited effects on reducing local crime. Based on research for more than a year in neighbourhoods of Almere, Amstelveen, Amsterdam and Tilburg, the influence of the groups on social security seems limited. Local residents share suspicious situations but this has proved justified, leading to an arrest, only in one case.

The ease of use of WhatsApp coupled with the high rate of mobile internet in the Dutch society, induces a fast pace with which information is produced, stored and distributed among citizens. This also means that reporting situations perceived as suspicious is just a “swipe away”. Besides the positive consequences, this low threshold for sharing suspicion, leads to information overload and raises several moral questions concerning the practice.

Drawing on additional empirical research (master thesis of Nils Dalmeijer) in WhatsApp neighbourhood groups in Leiden, Leiderdorp, and The Hague (Voorburg-West and Park Leeuwenberg), we observed several phenomena that reinforce and expand the findings so far. For one, many residents differ in their opinion of what constitutes suspicion. As criteria for reporting suspicious situations are often unclear, members of neighbourhood prevention teams stretch the interpretation of suspicion to their own liking. Often they perceive threats in behaviours or situations that would otherwise go unnoticed. For instance, reports have been made simply based on the style of clothing, a foreign number plate, for lacking a clear explanation or for behaviour that deviates from personal norms of what constitutes ‘the normal situation’. Through sharing and observing, many realities of suspicion are constructed, increasing the chances of perceiving threats and lowering the threshold for reporting suspicion.

Secondly, the sharing of suspicion through WhatsApp induces a sense of urgency, as members of WhatsApp groups are constantly reminded that a situation interpreted by some as suspicious is occurring around them. Being technologically mediated, this perceived sense of urgency further increases the intensity of suspicion or creates new suspicion altogether. Without observable criminal behaviour, people can get reported not because their activity is problematic, by whatever criteria of criminal behaviour, but because they do not fit in a perceived neighbourhood identity.

Thirdly, WhatsApp tends to broaden the scope of data gathering and digital surveillance by neighbourhood prevention teams. For instance, individuals were digitally tracked and followed through the neighbourhood, with pictures, locations and behaviour being shared among citizens. While this practice is to some extent legitimized by the neighbourhood watch arrangement, it often continues and gets reinforced not because individuals are behaving in ways that suggest breaking the law, but because their behaviour is interpreted as strangeby residents.

Therefore, these observations and analyses underline and support growing findings about a set of moral implications related to the technologically mediated practices of neighbourhood prevention teams. Combined with fast digitalisation, these socio-technical arrangements can entail not only benefits but also serious consequences. These can translate into the eroding of the privacy and the presumption of innocence of passers-by and moreover can lead to stigmatization and disproportionate social control of particular groups in urban environments.

Does this mean that neighbourhood prevention teams and the usage of social networks technology in these teams should be forbidden? No. There are possible solutions to mitigate these concerns. A good first step would be to make municipal governments and local police aware of the negative side effects of WhatsApp neighbourhood prevention. The citizen participants sometimes already receive training in local crime prevention. But these trainings should be broadened to include aspects such as how to generate, manage but also lift suspicion and how to value the privacy of other citizens.

At the same time, technologies in these security practices should be carefully designed. A potential step in this direction is made by projects such as TRILLION, a European-funded project that stands for a trusted citizen-police cooperation over social networks. This is because TRILLION offers a secure socio-technical platform to enable citizens to reportall kind of incidents – from vandalism and suspicious behaviour to cybersecurity-related incidents – through a set of devicessuch as smart phones and smart watches, while addressing some of the flaws of using WhatsApp as an enabling technology. All reported incidents are validated and prioritised by a trained dashboard operator before being dispatched. Moreover, users who engage in biased or discriminatory language are marked by the community, as each user needs to register in order to participate. At the same time, communication between citizens and police officers happens without necessarily involving everyone, unlike WhatsApp where all members in the group are being messaged constantly about everything.

If we consider these improvements, why has TRILLION not been adopted more broadly? We interviewed Peter van de Crommert from the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security – one of the TRILLION partners. He explains that “TRILLION will never get the same rate of end-user adoption as WhatsApp has because TRILLION has just one task which is Community Policing. For a European-wide adoption of the TRILLION app it needs to be organized and promoted by the EU and national governments as the official Incident Reporting app. TRILLION will not compete with WhatsApp groups”.

Still, we can conclude that all these technological and procedural steps are attesting to the argument that there is a need for improvement in this area and that the digitalisation of (local) crime prevention should not be blocked but guided. Of course, these steps also need to be constantly evaluated, updated and monitored with the same attention to the complex intertwinements between software-enabled infrastructures and social life.