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When you hear an outburst of sirens on a Saturday night, what do you do? If you’re Jackie Eicholz, who lives in Santa Cruz County, Calif., you reach for your phone and get out your police scanner apps to try and figure out what the commotion is all about. The apps she used were 5-0 Radio Police Scanner and Police Scanner Radio & Fire. 

She listened into chatter, talking about a small group of peaceful protestors, as well as talk of police moving around to various locations and something that sounded scary – a hostage negotiation team. Turned out, the sirens weren’t connected to the protests at all. 

What was going on was this: police were reacting to calls about a staff sergeant from the Air Force, on active duty, who had some bomb-making kit. He allegedly went on to shoot dead a sheriff’s deputy then tried a few carjacks before a civilian finally subdued the man. 

Now she’s seen the value of police scanners from that Saturday night, Eicholz has found other uses for the apps.

“Now I’m trying to listen in on how they talk about protesting,” she said to Laura Hautala at cnet

Like thousands of other Americans, Eicholz is tuning into police radios through scanner apps to listen to police responses about protests against the death of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. There have been spikes in the use of certain apps, like the encrypted messaging app Signal and Citizen which is used to report crimes. There’s been a 300 percent jumpsuit the last two weeks for some apps, as the protests for racial justice gain traction, say Apptopia.

“Different events drive downloads for different apps,” notes Adam Blacker, the vice president for insights and global alliances at Apptopia. He also says that there’s been a noted spike in apps for food delivery since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The apps do different things and offer services to protestors, business owners, and residents, who can use them to understand how fast-paced events unfold. Here’s a rundown of each of the apps, what they do, and what you need to know if you use them.

Citizen and Neighbors

Affiliated with Amazon’s Ring home security cameras, Citizen and Neighbors help people track the crime levels and police activity in their area. There’s also messaging apps designed for neighborhoods like Nextdoor, and plenty of communities have set up Facebook groups to keep everyone informed.

Out of these apps, Citizen has seen the biggest increase in downloads, says Apptopia. For the week leading up to May 27, the same week a police officer brutally killed George Floyd, up to the week period ending June 10, there has been a 325 percent jump in downloads, with a total of 306,000 devices having it installed. The app pulls together information about police activity in your area based on 911 calls and crime reports and gives users alerts.

In Emeryville, California, Katie Wages owns an ice cream shop and she was worried about the lootings in late May. She’s taken advantage of Citizen to see where the crowded protests were and where the police were stationed. It gives her “comfort” to know her business is safe, she said.

If you’re going to use it, note that what you share with some of these apps can get shared with law enforcement and possibly lead to being involved in a police investigation. As an example, lots of police departments work with Ring so they can access the information on the Neighbors app and there’s even a mechanism for police to request footage from home cameras through the app, although you can say no. A spokesperson for Citizen noted that its app doesn’t hand over information to the police unless they’re legally obliged to. 

Signal

In the US, Telegram is the most widely used encrypted messaging app, but Signal has seen huge increases in downloads in the last three weeks, notes Apptopia. From the week ending May 27 to the week ending June 10, Signal saw a 185 percent spike in downloads, with 192,300 new users.

Having your messages encrypted helps to keep messages private, such as when protestors want to organize themselves, said Cooper Quintin, who’s a senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There are limitations to these types of apps, though.

Using Signal and other message-encrypting apps use encryption as the message moves across the internet and into the receiver’s phone, meaning that your service provider can’t access them – unlike normal SMSs. Do remember that once the app is on your device, you’re responsible for its security. You hand over your phone and you’re handing over the data inside too.

Worried about law enforcement or other being able to see what you’ve been chatting about? You can turn on additional features such as disappearing messages which will ensure the message is permanently deleted after a certain period of tie. 

The messages you send will be “much closer to something like actually whispering to your friends,” Quintin said.

Police scanners

A scanner app publicly broadcasts the communications over police radio as long as you’ve got the right equipment. There’s been a big demand for these types of apps, Apptopia says. There were over 1.2 million downloads of this type of app between May 28 and June 3. The week after that, there was a drop in download activity to a little less than 1 million, but that still up 311 percent from before protests started. One of the most common apps in terms of download volume is Police Scanner, Live Police, the second most downloaded app is Police Scanner Fire & Radio.

When protestors use these apps, they can find out when police intend to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, or use other weapons. Residents like Eicholz can even figure out the details of a serious incident in their neighborhood. 

Note that the free versions have a lot of apps. When Eicholz tested different apps before settling for the two she liked, she noted that the ads made the experience uneven. You can choose to pay for an ad-free version, or even just buy yourself a police scanner radio. 

Once you’ve settled on your tech, you need to start to understand what all the chatter actually means.  There’s “not a ton of context,” Eicholz said, “and some of the codes I had to look up.”

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