OpenWatch Turns Your Smartphone Into A "Reverse Surveillance Camera"

Andy Greenberg
OpenWatch Turns Your Smartphone Into A "Reverse Surveillance Camera"

"Who watches the watchers?" goes the adage that's more relevant than ever in a world of pervasive surveillance cameras and arrests for filming police. Rich Jones has one suggestion: your phone.

Jones is the 23-year old lead developer of OpenWatch, a suite of free apps that turn Android devices or iPhones into secret audio or video recording devices, with the express purpose of keeping tabs on police, TSA agents, security guards or other authority figures.

The OpenWatch app for Android lets users choose to make either an audio file or a video, recording invisibly when it's activated and running in the background of the operating system. (Jones recommends that when possible, users put their phones in their shirt pocket with the camera facing out for surreptitious video filming, as in the picture above.)

Those media files are stored locally on the phone. But the user can also choose to upload them to OpenWatch's server, where clips that show noteworthy interactions with police or potential abuses have their audio cleaned up, their identifying details removed and are posted online.

OpenWatch calls the result a "reverse surveillance camera," a way for citizens to conveniently keep tabs on the government, instead of vice versa. "This is about collecting data, learning as much as possible about the way that local government is carried out and how authority behaves," says Jones.

Here's a video of Jones showing how the apps work.

[vimeovid id="24250307"]

Jones says OpenWatch currently receives about 50 videos a day, mostly from users checking the functionality of the app's upload feature. But the group also posts about one clip a day of real interactions with police. One recent audio recording, for instance, captured a user refusing to submit to a sobriety test at a California DUI checkpoint. Jones says that several volunteer lawyers are looking into the case and are analyzing whether illegal conduct occurred and whether a case could be brought against the state.

For older versions of Android and for iPhone, OpenWatch offers a simpler app called Cop Recorder, which only captures audio. That previous generation of the app, which originally only stored files on the phone without the ability to upload them, has already been downloaded 50,000 times in the nine months since it launched, Jones says.

OpenWatch may run into controversy on the legal front: Secretly filming police is illegal in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. But Jones stops just short of requesting that users in those states break the law and record their police encounters. "I won't say, 'don't use this anywhere it's illegal,'" he says. "I want to make it convenient for people to be subversive. And because states like Massachusetts and Illinois have laws like they do, they may be the states that most need to have the spotlight shined on them."

Jones says OpenWatch was inspired in part by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's concept of "scientific journalism," journalism that's based on documents or data but that also makes those primary sources available to the audience. "We're really trying to democratize the concepts behind WikiLeaks," says Jones. "Only this isn't about leaking data, but instead every user creating new data. Their participation can become documentary evidence, just by using the technology that’s already in their pocket."