For Dan Elliott, his life's work and now-generous income was born out of a horrendous family tragedy 25 years ago. "I got 'the call' from my mother, who told me that I needed to go tell my younger brother that his fiancee had been murdered," says a stoic Elliott. "Someone had decided that he wanted to be her new boyfriend. And she rejected his affections and he beat her to death with a jewelry mallet 300 times. And then forensically cleaned her apartment for 6 hours, including bathing her corpse. The case is unsolved."
While he seems to have his own theories on the case, Elliott says current social media use and the Clery Act, which was passed a few years after the murder, could have helped law enforcement track down the murderer. It would take another several years before Elliott applied his grief to his business. He started out working with the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas formulating maps to show local crime. "My 'aha' moment was, we should not just tell people where crime was," he says, "we should ask them where it is."
By 2007, Elliott had invented a rough prototype for what is the suddenly awkwardly named iWatch Crime app, which is a free app that allows community members to "anonymously" report suspicious activity to local police. Dallas PD was one of the first departments in the country to sign on to the program, and now nearly 80 other cities have joined suit. The company expects another 500 cities to sign on within the next 12 months.
Dallas Police Department has had its watchdog app available to the public since 2010. On Thursday, the department announced it would partner with Dallas ISD to allow students to send school-specific tips. Provided kids don't actually send tips during school, Dallas ISD Police adjusted the app so that it has a drop-down option for all schools in the district.
"We're just asking that they participate in the program, where if they see a theft or burglary or drug sale around the school they'll report," Dallas ISD Police Chief Craig Miller says. "We think that by having this other set of eyes we'll have better and more intelligent information."
But some advocates find the kids-as-watchdogs motif troubling. "In talking about schools, it heightens concern. By definition they're underage," says Matt Simpson, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Texas. "You want to make sure certain privacy rules are in effect."
Simpson says there's also significant concern that community members could report innocent people, just based on religious or racial profiling. Oddly, Elliott's parent company of iWatch, iThinqWare, seems to justify this very concern: "Reach for the app, not the gun," headlines one press release, encouraging neighborhood watch groups or individuals to send tips via text, rather than engaging in police action themselves. Which raises a question: A nervous white guy sending a police tip instead of shooting a black kid in a hoodie is unquestionably preferable, but is the motivation itself any less racist?
"If you live in a neighborhood and you know there's an illegal party that takes place every Friday, and there's 30 cars and the people that come and go don't exactly, uh, fit the profile of the rest of the neighborhood, people will turn it in," Elliott says. "That's what's called suspicious activity reporting."
Elliott claims the majority of tips are, and will continue to be, legitimate. "Statistically of the 120,000 to 130,000 tips we've received, mathematically it's less than .4 percent of people that do create a nuisance," he says. "We had an individual in Cleveland that turned in tips about mass transit because he was mad that he had to ride the bus and didn't have a car. You're going to get those, but it's less than .4 percent."
But questions remain: What's the difference between "nuisance" tips and those that are delivered with more sinister intentions? Who determines the difference? And for the several anecdotes Elliott gave about "anonymous" tippers, how did he know so many details about them -- such as the gender of the mass transit complainer in Cleveland?
Elliott is confident that the feds cannot crack his foolproof code. "The FBI recognizes our encryption as a trade secret," Elliott says. "I do know that the conversations we have, they like what we're doing. They buy our technology. And when they buy our technology, they have access to it. We want them to have access to it. But I do know that it's not like I give them all the keys. They only have keys to a certain part of it."
"With a dashboard with reverse mode notification, 32 languages, text, voice, geo-coding," Elliott says, "we are the most sophisticated platform ever created on earth." So judge for yourself if the app is creepy or not. In the meantime, be careful about pissing off your neighbors -- or your kids -- anytime soon.