About a week ago I published a post cautiously praising the work of Boulder, Colorado based SafeArx, the company behind a smartphone app called Cell 411 claiming to cut down on the need for police:
Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. [â€¦] I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.
In the post, I raised some basic questions about Cell 411 that seemed to have gone unasked by reporters covering it. Chief among them is that the app claims to be a de-centralized alternative to 9-1-1, except that it’s not decentralized at all. I described this discrepancy as follows:
On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:
Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.
The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.
Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:
As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.
Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:
1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.
This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?
Despite this, I was hopeful that Cell 411’s creator, Virgil Vaduva, and his team would be willing to at least address the point, perhaps by discussing their development roadmap. Maybe it’s not decentralized yet, but they intend to decentralize it later on? That would be awesome, and important. Moreover, I asked if they would be interested in combining efforts with me or others with whom I’ve worked, since we’ve been developing an actually decentralized, free software tool with the same goal in mind called Buoy for a few months now. I said as much in my earlier post:
I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.
I sent Virgil Vaduva an email last week, and tweeted at him before writing my post. (My previous post includes a copy of the email I sent him.) I was ignored. So I started tweeting at others who were tweeting about Cell 411, linking them to my questions. It seems that’s what got Mr. Vaduva’s attention, since today I finally got a response from him. And that response is extremely concerning for Cell 411’s supposed target audience: activists. Here’s how Mr. Vaduva “answered” my technical questions:
@maymaymx Seriously dude, I am not interested in cooperating or even discussing any topic with anyone using the handle "Kill White America"
— Virgil Vaduva (@VirgilVaduva) March 5, 2016
I’m not entirely sure why technical questions like these were answered by a hyper-focus on the militantly anti-racist Twitter handle I happen to be using right now (it’s actually “Kill White Amerikkka”), unless of course if Vaduva is having some kind of trigger reaction caused by (evidently not-so-latent) internalized white supremacy. Later, he called my original post, which, again, included outright praise for Cell 411 a “shitty hit piece.” I even offered to change my Twitter handle (as if that has any bearing at all on the technical matters?) for the duration of a discussion with him, but again, the only replies were, well, have a look:
@maymaymx Did you tweet that on your $3k Mac built by a white capitalist running a closed source OS?
— Virgil Vaduva (@VirgilVaduva) March 6, 2016
@maymaymx Right now the main reason is you and your white, arrogant, entitled millennial ass.
— Virgil Vaduva (@VirgilVaduva) March 6, 2016
The full thread isâ€¦well, classic Twitter.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of installing a closed-source app that reports my location to a centralized database controlled by a company whose founder actively deflects legitimate technical questions by objecting to a militantly anti-racist Twitter handle and making immature pro-capitalist statements when asked technical questions doesn’t sit well with me. But even if that were something I could tolerate, it raises even more concerning questions when that very same app is one touted as being built for anti-police brutality activists.
Last week, I would have told my friends, “Go ahead and try Cell 411, but be careful.” With this new information, my advice is: “Don’t trust anything created by SafeArx, including Cell 411, until and unless the technical issues are addressed, the source is released as free software, and its creators make clear that anti-racism and anti-capitalism is a core intention of their development process.”
In my personal opinion, tools like Cell 411 that purport to be “made for activists, by activists” need to be comfortable materially advancing the destruction of whiteness and white identity, as well as standing in solidarity with militant resistance to white supremacy. But even putting aside concerns over Vaduva’s discomfort with anti-racist Twitter handles, any technologist worth his salt who wants his closed-source technology to be trusted should be able to answer some basic questions about it if he’s indeed unwilling to release the source code itself.
Mr. Vaduva and Cell 411 fall short on both counts. The sad thing is that any potentially latent racism in Cell 411’s creator wouldn’t be a technical concern if Cell 411 itself were actually decentralized free software, since the intentions or social beliefs of an app’s creator can’t change how the already-written code works. As I said in the conclusion to my previous post:
It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.
But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.
As long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.
If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.