Catch-em Is Raising $50K to Jump to the US, but Are We Ready for Big Brother?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 24, 2012

From The News Desk

Driving can turn perfectly civilized, pleasant people into total assholes. A person that would never push another human being in front of a subway may have no problem cutting someone off in traffic. Drivers will typically tone down their bad habits when they know they're being watched, but that isn't an option – yet. The question is, if there were a way to monitor people as they drive, would it be ethical to use it?

Catch-em is a smartphone app and service designed to make gathering and reporting evidence of these aggressive drivers and issues with a road, such as potholes, cracks, etc., easier. The service, which is currently available in Israel, has turned to Indiegogo to raise $50,000 and make its way to the States.

Assuming the crowdfunding is successful, Catch-em will use the $50,000 to buff up its call centers and start ringing government agencies and shipping companies in the US. The company is allowing its backers to decide which state Catch-em should make its way to first, and will seek institutional funding once it reaches a critical mass of users.

Available as an Android app, website, and (soon) an iPhone app, Catch-em allows drivers and pedestrians to gather photographic evidence of four different types of problems: "road bullying," traffic violations, road hazards, and accidents. Pedestrians are able to capture images manually via the Catch-em app and report a problem straight from their phones.

The process for drivers is a bit different. Instead of requiring drivers to snap their own pictures, which would probably create more problems than it solves, Catch-em asks the driver to put their device in a cradle on their vehicle's dashboard. The phone will then snap photos automatically, keeping a 20-photo history of what's happening in front of the driver. If there is something to report the driver then taps the phone's screen and Catch-em will take and keep ten additional photographs and store them until the driver can safely report the issue.

Catch-em sorts through any images that are uploaded to its servers and removes irrelevant photos, many of which are created when new users decide to test the application. Photos will then be pushed to Catch-em's website, where users can vote on whether or not a violation is clearly shown. If the vote is primarily "no" the photos are deleted, and if most people say that there is an issue, a "team of experts" will view the photos, make a judgment, and contact the right agency to get the issue resolved.

The service is currently working with government agencies and shippers (think UPS or FedEx, but on a smaller scale) in Israel, and plans to develop the same relationship with groups in the US. Catch-em's relationship with shipping companies exchanges information about drivers for a fee, which not only puts some cash in Catch-em's pocket but also helps keep the shipping company informed about its drivers.

Catch-em is ultimately about trying to change drivers' behavior, CEO Gene Goldman says. He cites how the presence of a police officer affects drivers as the effect that he wants Catch-em to have.

Goldman plans on entering other verticals once Catch-em is stable enough to operate on its own, taking the concept of a communal Big Brother and applying it to personal and environmental safety. "We live in these communities, we've got this social media ability, but still people are fearful," he says. "We're just bringing the pieces together."

The jury is still out on whether or not those pieces should be brought together. At what point does capability come into contact with morality, and which should win? That drivers and other people would probably act differently knowing that they could be recorded, reported, and punished is almost a given, but one has to wonder at the implications. Where does one draw the line?

Goldman genuinely believes that he and his company are doing social good, and striving to create a safer environment is admirable. I'm not convinced that it's ethical to record and report every instance of possible wrongdoing and have the crowd vote on whether or not an unlawful act has been committed, however. We've tried something similar to that before, and the results weren't the greatest.

It's a catch-22. Would we prefer a safer community that is only safer because it is constantly watched by the all-seeing eye of the modern smartphone, or would we prefer our rights to privacy in a more dangerous society?

Catch-em, by itself, isn't as bad as all that. The US has a serious issue with traffic-related casualties, and cutting down on the number of aggressive, dangerous drivers could certainly be categorized as a great thing. The worrying part is what might happen when this model expands to other verticals, and it will be interesting to see how Goldman and company navigate those issues.