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Nextdoor: Tool for good or another paranoid cog in the spy machine?

News Analysis
Jul 26, 20165 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsSecurity

More police agencies join the private social network Nextdoor to engage with and give news to communities. The question is will people use the tool for good or turn it into another paranoid cog in the great spy machine?

I’ve lived in some really great places, as well as some that were not. At one point when I lived in a city that had been crowned most dangerous and had the most number of violent crimes, I might have welcomed the community-based social networking app Nextdoor.

Dubbed a “private social network,” Nextdoor is a gated local community-based social network to share information about what is happening in your neighborhood. Users must prove they are a member of their neighborhood by entering a code received via snail mail. Then they can access only the information pertaining to their neighborhood.

Although it launched in 2011, within the last month, Nextdoor has been in the news after even more police departments have joined. A few examples include the Delaware State Police, Louisville Metro Police, St. Joseph Police Department in Missouri, Boynton Beach Police and Leon County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.

The news is also saturated with various mayors, towns and even government agencies such as the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management joining the site. The Santa Barbara Police Department even utilized Nextdoor, as well as bigger social networking sites, to catch a suspected child molester.

While it’s not like the Peeple app—which would have allowed neighbors to rate other neighbors, and anyone else, with a one- to five-star rating—and Nextdoor has received its share of praise, there has been a reoccurring theme about it causing paranoia.

In fact, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray thought Nextdoor might be driving some people into a “paranoid hysteria.” He said, “We need social media tools that build community, not drive people into a paranoid delusion because they think people, say, delivering mail are somehow criminals.”

It is that paranoia, that neighbor spying on neighbor mentality, that snagged my attention.

Videographer Devin Greene had hoped to promote his business; however, he quickly found out that the only videos people are interested in on Nextdoor is security footage. Nextdoor is somewhat of a community gathering place, but in his opinion it is “also a place where the need for security and comfort and the need for freedom suffer an unfortunate clash.”

Neighbors aren’t playing “I spy with my little eye,” but Greene wrote on Snapmunk that “there should probably be an ‘I’ in ‘spy,’” since most neighbors are spying and “snitching” on each other.

“The website just makes it so damn easy and consequence-free,” he wrote. “I’ll go so far as to say that ratting feels encouraged.”

It should be noted that the site did try to make changes to stop users from engaging in racial profiling when “reporting a crime” and “suspicious activity.” Unfortunately, like has been reported about the see-something-say-something mentality, spiteful neighbors might try to get other neighbors in trouble.

There are posts about “naughty neighbors.” For example, people are posting secretly taken photos, such as screen-grabs from the Ring doorbell camera, and then asking people if the same person visited them using a different name and story. Other neighbors are gossiping about “bad” parents, such as a mom who cursed at her child, and being urged to call child protective services or the police.

Greene added:

The problem I have with Nextdoor is the same problem I have with NSA surveillance, or any other unwarranted infringement of privacy. The power is always one-sided. People on Nextdoor only reveal their paranoia to an exclusive social network (until some writer publishes an article about them). For the person having their worst day ever, the person who yells at a child, or asks for money, or pilfers a trashcan, the balance is not in their favor. You could have your picture posted online, your child reported to protective services, and your freedom taken away by police officers. Aided and abetted by an army of informants.

You might as well count on being banned if you take screen captures, report on what people say, or if you are a reporter covering a police press conference held on a Nextdoor town hall. Since Greene did take screenshots, he may be kicked from the site. Then again, maybe Nextdoor learned its lesson last time it tried that with a reporter and got hit with negative PR.

That’s not to say Nextdoor is all-around bad and something to avoid. There are plenty of positive stories about neighbors helping neighbors. Nirav Tolia, Nextdoor CEO and one of the seven co-founders, said he grew up in a tight-knit Texas community where it was safe for kids to play in the street and neighbors looked out for other neighbors; he wanted to create that same experience for his three sons who are growing up in San Francisco.

Deciding whether to join Nextdoor might depend upon how social you are in your neighborhood or if you want hyper-localized news from law enforcement and town authorities. Some folks claim it can be used like a localized version of Angie’s List, and others complain about the back-biting. It might also depend upon your location, your neighborhood and if you have kids. There’s already surveillance about everywhere you go, so it would be a shame for people to use Nextdoor just to stir up paranoia and turn neighborhoods into another cog in the spy machine.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.