New Phone App Allows Shoppers, Retailers to Report Black People for ‘Looking Suspicious’

iPhone AppsBlack people are often early adopters of gadgets like cell phones and apps, however those apps may be secretly tracking them. NPR reports that residents in some major cities are using phone apps to racially profile Black people. Apps such as GroupMe and Sketch Factor can be used to report and warn of suspicious behavior. The problem is, in America, some white people think all Black people are potential criminals.

NPR’s Kelly McEvers interviewed Terrence McCoy of The Washington Post, who did a story on this subject. McCoy explained that Operation GroupMe, which is used by patrons of high-end stores in Washington, D.C., can report suspicious behavior to up to 400 people, including police officers, at a time. But the process is not always accurate.

“People oftentimes encourage each other to take pictures or to give some sort of surveillance footage of somebody,” McCoy said. “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.”

McCoy added that some of the descriptions of Black people were stereotypical and borderline offensive. One user described a suspicious person as “ratchet” and another person complained about person “smelling of weed.”

Another problem with the app is it’s based on groundless suspicions, which are subjective. While one person might find a Black man with ripped jeans and tattoos threatening, another person might think he’s just a hipster.

”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’,” McCoy said. “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.”

Black people have been arrested, and sometimes even shot dead, based on white people’s suspicions. Earlier this week, a group of young Black men were chased, thrown to the ground and handcuffed by D.C. police because a white woman said their presence in a bank made her “uncomfortable.”

Back to top