If you see something, say something.
It’s a phrase you have heard repeatedly from the MBTA about reporting suspicious activity. The T even has an app with a similar name which encourages passengers to report crimes or suspicious behavior.
However, there may be a catch when it comes to your personal information and how a safety app may be monitoring you.
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“They’re collecting a bunch of information; the battery level, the speed at which you’re moving,” said David Choffnes, a professor at Northeastern University.
Choffnes says the app also tracks the user’s location along with the IMEI, which is the cellphone’s unique identifying number, and transfers that data back to Elerts.
“In this case, we’re seeing the locations are being sent even if you’re not doing anything with the app,” Choffnes told NBC Boston.
The app was developed by Elerts Corporation in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The app also has partnerships with transit agency in San Francisco, Atlanta, Charlotte, Buffalo, Dallas, Philadelphia and Toronto.
“We’ve had missing children recovered, missing dementia patients,” said Ed English, the company’s CEO. “A police officer cannot respond until they know where the problem is, so the GPS is the most valuable pieces of information.”
“We’re not tracking people,” English said. “Most of that data is simply discarded and then thrown away.”
Choffnes’ students reviewed the project as part of the school’s ReCon project. ReCon allows users to track what apps are running on their smartphones and what data is being transferred back to developers.
“When you open the (See Something, Say Something) app, it’s sharing information about you. It is collecting unique information about your device which can be used to tie your activity to that device,” said Choffnes.
What info can and should be transferred is the subject of a lawsuit brought against Elerts in San Francisco. As a result, the company says it is considering removing some of the app’s features it doesn’t need, such as tracking your battery level.
“If you submit an anonymous message, your name and contact information is not submitted to the police, said English. “They would need a subpoena in order to get access to records.”
The MBTA declined a request for an on camera interview but agency spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told us in an emailed statement, “Transit Police do not use this app for anything other than receiving anonymous tips about crime or other incidents.”
“We’re here to do good. We’re providing a tool that lets people have a safer experience,” said English.
Elerts isn’t the only app that tracks your location. Many popular apps including Facebook and Google Maps track where you are.
Find out what other popular apps may be doing with your information by going to ReCon.