“You’re never without an alibi.”
That’s the tagline of the new smartphone app Alibi, whose splash page is filled with a jerky, lo-fi video of a protest, putting the visitor in the midst of a whirl of yelling policemen, chanting participants, and omnipresent journalists snapping photos. It consciously evokes a kind of paranoia from the outset. Where am I, what kind of an alibi do I need, and how is this technology going to help me get one?
Founded by Jeff Myers and Ryan Salla, the app passively records audio, video, and location data on Android smartphones (it’s not yet available on iOS, and seems unlikely to be in the future given Apple’s store policies of not letting politically controversial tools into their system), and saves the previous hour of information on-demand, so a user always has proof of where they were and who they were with—just in case it becomes necessary. Given the recent killings of Michael Brown and many others in ambiguous violent contexts, Alibi is being pitched as a kind of preventative measure. “If there’s an instance of police brutality and someone has this on, that would be the best scenario,” Myers says.
It’s not hard to see why Alibi exists. It’s a preemptive defense against the blatant reality of abuses of power perpetrated by cops in the United States, not to mention the eerie ambience of inexplicable catastrophe the world has been facing of late: serially disappearing planes, instantaneous wars, assassinations broadcast on YouTube, massive surveillance networks. This app is indicative of a larger trend: We’re developing paranoid technology for paranoid times.
A net of opposing surveillance and sousveillance might restore a sense of balance to our technological landscape, but the data-gathering arms war doesn’t do much to make us any safer.
Alibi is something like an airplane’s black box or the “dashcams” that come omnipresent in Russian cars, small cameras facing out the windshield that record video, capturing everything from crazy crashes to meteors flying through the sky. “We realized that actually could be done on the phone,” Myers says. “It became way more compelling when you could carry it around all the time.”
The mechanism is simple. Just choose what kinds of data to record—visuals, audio, or location—then swipe to start recording and minimize the app. To save the previous hour of media, just open it up again. By default, Alibi records audio continuously, GPS data every 10 seconds, and images every five seconds. Video is possible, but it drains a phone battery quickly. “Right now if I run it all day with video it takes up 1.2 times the amount of battery consumption,” the co-founder says. “The video that it captures is uncompressed, but very low resolution—enough to capture someone’s face or whatever you need.”
Alibi is an exercise in sousveillance—the term for community-based or individual surveillance mechanisms aimed against larger systems. It often refers to cameras slung around a wearer’s neck or attached to their chest like the “Narrative Clip,” a lifestyle product.
Smartphones are a perfect site for passive, protective sousveillance. Myer cites the example of ex-pats in Bangkok, Thailand, who told him they have a problem with police extorting them for money or even take their phones. “They requested Dropbox integration, with some sort of secret signal—tap on the phone or shake it—to initiate the syncing,” Myers says. Alibi is in the top 100 downloaded apps in Malaysia and Ukraine. “Foreign downloads are likely people defending themselves against police corruption,” the co-founder continues.
Myers suggests that Alibi could be used as a replacement for body cams—small sousveillance-style cameras attached to uniforms that President Obama has committed to funding for police forces as another countermeasure against abuse. “It could be relatively functional and way, way cheaper than supplying a whole force with body cams, especially with old Android devices laying around,” he says. The app could also be deployed in more prosaic circumstances. A waiter in Greenpoint had to return to Myers’ table to check on orders. “If he was running Alibi he wouldn’t have had to come back,” Myers says.
Yet Alibi confronts certain basic lines of privacy and security. A net of opposing surveillance and sousveillance might restore a sense of balance to our technological landscape, but the data-gathering arms war doesn’t do much to make us any safer. The entire concept is unsettling, for perfectly understandable reasons. We don’t normally think of our smartphones as security devices—though they are—just as we don’t live with the constant fear of being tracked. Though perhaps now, we do.
Just as surveillance shouldn’t be universal, so countermeasures must also be contextually selective. “If we don’t talk about Alibi in the sense of police or protest or legal incidents then it gets kind of creepy,” Myers says. “I promised not to use it in my office; when I have a meeting I don’t use it.”
It’s also worth remembering that counter-surveillance doesn’t help as much as we might expect it to. When officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death in New York last July, video cameras recorded the entire gruesome incident. Yet Pantaleo was cleared in December. The existence of documentation made little difference to the outcome, though it inspired the same massive protests that Alibi hopes to support.