Are we ready for a world in which Big Brother is the phone of our next-door neighbour?

On a grim winter night in August, two men riding the number 82 tram in Droop Street, Footscray were attacked, apparently at random, by a knife-wielding assailant who fled the scene.

While the chilling incident, which hospitalised the men, might be seen as a one-off, what happened in the aftermath is becoming an increasingly common and worrying trend. As one of the victims lay on the road next to the tram getting help from an onlooker, a bystander filmed the scene on their smartphone. Within hours the footage had found its way onto the social news aggregator site Reddit.

Shortly thereafter, however, the video was removed because, according to a thread on the site purporting to be from the original poster, the alleged perpetrator was described as “an African guy”, something the moderator deemed “race baiting”.

The incident is one of many troubling spin-offs from the rapid rise of citizens surveilling each other, in a world where there is a smartphone in every pocket and pictures from almost any misdemeanour can be uploaded to sites such as Reddit or LiveLeak, or indeed be streamed real time via apps such as Facebook Live or Periscope.

Those concerns go beyond the unnerving prospect of vigilantes hunting down dark-skinned people based on social media hearsay, or very real questions about a victim’s right to privacy.

The use of apps such as Crimestoppers, recently updated in Queensland and Victoria, which allow smartphone users to send details, photos and video of crimes directly to law enforcement, herald an era where any infraction – ranging from the serious felony to the teenager spraying graffiti or even the Mum illegally parked while dropping her kids at school – becomes fair game for fellow citizens.

So do we have a civic duty to dob and, if so, at what point do the downsides become too great?

Joshua Reeves, an assistant professor at Oregon State University whose book Citizen Spies was released in March, sees a disturbing phenomenon emerging, fuelled by a culture of mutual surveillance fostered, most recently, by counter-terrorism programs such as “if it doesn’t add up, speak up”.

“In order for these programs to work, you have to tie snitching to moral and social responsibility, and you have to teach citizens that they are under threat, and that in order to handle that threat appropriately they have to be watchful and suspicious of their fellow citizens,” says Reeves.

Reeves doesn’t question the value of reporting serious felonies to police. But he does point out that “snitching” has resulted in some truly awful outcomes, such as the 2009 case of a boy set alight because he was thought to have reported a bike theft to police.

Read the full feature in the Sydney Morning Herald here

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