Charles Husted, the chief of police in Sedona, Arizona, couldn’t contain his excitement. He had just been accepted into the Public Agencies Advisory Council for Nextdoor, the neighborhood social networking app.
“You’re the best!!! A great Christmas present,” he wrote in a December email to Parisa Safarzadeh, Government Relations Manager for Nextdoor.com Inc., obtained by CityLab through a public records request.
As part of the chosen group, he would be flown to San Francisco on President’s Day, along with seven other community engagement staffers from police departments and mayor’s offices across the country. Over two days, they’d meet at Nextdoor’s headquarters to discuss the social network’s public agency strategy. Together, the plan was, they’d stay at the Hilton Union Square, eat and drink at Cultivar, share a tour of Chinatown, and receive matching Uniqlo jackets. All costs — a projected $16,900 for the group, according to a schedule sent to participants — were covered by Nextdoor. Confidential information was protected by a non-disclosure agreement.
The all-expenses paid trip for these eight public officials is one of the ways Nextdoor has been looking to promote its network of online communities to government agencies. It reflects a trend that’s worrying to civil rights and government accountability experts: that local law enforcement and other types of government officials are closely collaborating with private companies whose interests don’t always align with the public’s. Corporate NDAs also have the potential to limit the transparency of those relationships.
Nextdoor and the public agencies it works with say that close ties between the social media platform and the government can help them both do their jobs better. The Public Agencies Advisory Council was convened to give input on Nextdoor features, by providing “a forum for [public agency] partners to share their expertise and experiences with each other and our product development team,” Nextdoor said in an emailed statement.
“As we look to build a product that best serves all of our customers, it is critical to engage with them and gather direct input to inform our product development decisions,” the statement said. “Nextdoor greatly values this best practice and, as part of that, we work closely with experts such as academics, community leaders, and sociologists as they bring diverse perspectives and advise on important areas of Nextdoor like civic engagement, neighborhood vitality, and member experience.”
Since its launch in 2012, Nextdoor — an advertising-supported social network of hyper-local online groups where neighbors post real-time updates — has acted as a sort of digital “neighborhood watch” for its users, and a megaphone for the public institutions that serve them. On neighborhood feeds, municipal agencies can share urgent alerts and community events, just like they might on other sites like Facebook and Twitter. Unlike other platforms, though, Nextdoor allows agencies to geo-target their posts to reach particular residents who have verified they live in the area.
Husted says that leaning on social media — not just Nextdoor, but also Facebook or Twitter — in the line of duty is an inevitability of the current age. “It’s naive to think as public safety folks that we can keep doing our work the same as we have for years and years,” he said. “We have to evolve with the times, and the times have to do with social media: That’s where our communities are at. We have to find a way to be there too.”
The concept of city agencies trying to build trust with their communities is not new, nor is a police department’s impulse to tap into local eyes on the street. What’s different is that these communications are circulated within a more limited online group, and being facilitated by a private company.
The platform shines in times like the present pandemic, by connecting isolated people with resources, solidarity, neighborly advice and updated health information: Since the Covid-19 crisis began in the U.S. at the beginning of March, Nextdoor says the volume of posts by public agencies has tripled. Along with his daily press conferences, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been posting occasionally on the site as part of Nextdoor’s new partnership with the National Governors Association. On a local “Help Map,” users offer free assistance to immediate neighbors, such as grocery runs or phone check-ins.
But in calmer times, Nextdoor has also been a hotbed of racial profiling and tattling. Its “crime and safety” pages host unverified speculation about wrongdoers prowling outside, sometimes accompanied by photographs or doorbell videos taken without a subject’s knowledge; though the company rolled out an algorithm to spot racist language on the site, coded assumptions still proliferate. Now, these issues are more coronavirus-flavored: Descriptions of package thieves (“tallish dark skinned male”) appear next to arguments about whether 5G wireless technology caused Covid-19 (it didn’t) and photographs of rude joggers.
Pursuing relationships with local governments, especially police departments, has become a key part of many tech companies’ playbooks, says Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice. Motherboard has chronicled how Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service courts local cops with parties and discounts, encouraging them to use the video surveillance product themselves and to push it on people their jurisdictions; Buzzfeed reported that Clearview AI, which has created a repository of images that can be searched using facial recognition, has credentialed users at “hundreds of local police departments.”
Nextdoor is following this lead: Robbie Turner, a senior city strategist with Nextdoor, wrote to Husted that when expanding Nextdoor’s reach to Canada, the company was using “the same strategy we used when we first launched in the U.S. — recruit the major Police Departments and have them help us grow membership and engagement quickly.”
The stakes of asking people to buy a $100 Ring doorbell are different than nudging people to use a free online service that public agencies say helps keep cities more connected. Ring is a novel surveillance tool; Nextdoor can be a platform for the video footage that cameras like Ring helps neighbors take. But both partnerships raise questions about how private companies can push officials to conflate private gain with public interest.
“Police are supposed to be impartial civic servants,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital civil liberties. “You want a police officer who has the best interests of their specific community at heart. You don’t want a police officer who’s brand loyal.”
“Most Connected Neighborhood”
Husted first started using Nextdoor during his time as an officer in Sacramento, California, where he said the app helped reinvigorate apathetic people who may not have otherwise reported crimes, and enhanced community trust of the police. When he started his new gig in Sedona last year, he hurried to get the department signed up for the app.
“I am a paid employee as of tomorrow (4/22), and I’d like to get a jump on setting up an agency Nextdoor page for Sedona P.D. I’m SO excited about this!!!” he wrote in an email in April. “I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the fabulous ‘N’ Team, and seeing how we can expand community connectivity in Sedona, and beyond.”
Throughout last year, Husted supported the company’s outreach efforts. In November, he organized a local Nextdoor event where he gave out “neighbor and neighborhood awards,” like “Most Engaged Neighborhood” and “Most Connected Neighborhood,” based on Nextdoor metrics. Husted also expressed a desire to hand out Nextdoor-branded bags to the more than 90 attendees of a Women in Law Enforcement Celebration, but Turner said they didn’t have enough swag. “If we had enough, we would have definitely sent them to you,” she wrote. They connected in person at the 2019 International Association of Chiefs of Police. (Nextdoor declined to make Turner or Safarzadeh available for comment.)
Other police officers were called upon to serve as references for departments interested in using the app. In October, Joseph Porcelli, Nextdoor’s public agency lead and ambassador of community, asked Major Ed O’Carroll, a commander in Fairfax County Police Department’s Major Crimes Bureau, if he would talk to a Canadian police department about his experience with Nextdoor. After the conversation, emails show, O’Carroll updated Porcelli: “Very positively received.”
The Public Agencies Advisory Council appeared to have recruitment efforts as its goal, too. To qualify for the invite-only group, officials were asked in December to fill out a questionnaire gauging participants’ willingness to promote Nextdoor publicly. “We look to you as influencers in your industry,” one of the questions read. “Are you comfortable referring agencies or colleagues to begin using Nextdoor?”
Another asked each member if they could commit to writing one blog post “showing how you/your agency is using Nextdoor.” Members of the group could be asked to participate in regional conferences on Nextdoor’s behalf, join calls with Nextdoor staff quarterly, and meet in person at least once. “[W]e know that peer-to-peer yields a stronger approach and more credibility,” wrote Nextdoor’s Safarzadeh in an email to Janelle McGregor, Tampa Bay’s community partnership manager and the former spokesperson for the city’s police department.
The advisory council’s February meeting included discussions with Nextdoor’s marketing team, according to the agenda sent to members: Day two included sessions on “product vision” and “product marketing best practices.”
Nextdoor’s broader objective was to earn the trust of more public agencies, and to eventually pitch a paid version of the app. “As we continue to build out a monetized, ‘premium’ version of Nextdoor for Public Agencies, the feedback we will receive is critical to our strategic product roadmap and brand positioning,” the plan read.
In the application, Nextdoor also asked if any endorsement policies would prevent their cooperation, and if there were any ways the company could recognize officials’ efforts that weren’t in violation of their agency’s policies.
Several public officials who were part of the Public Agencies Advisory Council say that the trip didn’t conflict with any city policies. Lara Foss, a corporate communications marketing consultant for the City of Austin, told CityLab that since the trip was work-related, it did not violate the city’s gift policy. Sedona’s Husted also said there were no endorsement regulations that prohibited him from participating. Katie Nelson, social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department in California, said that because the city’s policy prohibits taking paid trips on clocked time, she took a few days off from work to participate in the San Francisco meet-up. (She also did not receive plane tickets, since she lives within driving distance of San Francisco; instead, she took a Lyft and was reimbursed by Nextdoor.)
Greg Licamele, who directs external communications for Fairfax County, Virginia, joined the group to discuss the “tenor and tone” of conversations shared in the county, and to share his perspective on how Nextdoor could be improved as a resource for governments. “It’s up to the team at Nextdoor to consider that feedback and implement changes (or not) as Nextdoor sees fit,” he said in an email.
For Nelson, being asked to be join the council is part of the reason she appreciates the platform so much: Nextdoor is the only social media company that cared enough to include her in its decision-making processes. “Being able to have that voice and a seat at the table, not only as a public official but as a woman in a public role,” she said, was a “breath of fresh air.”
Nelson said that though the team met people from the marketing department during the February meeting, they were not instructed to market any of Nextdoor’s products. “I would say that if you don’t have it, and if your community is not on it, you are perhaps losing out on a huge opportunity to have your voice heard and be a primary source of info,” she said. “But I never felt like I had to go out and tell everybody that.”
Signing the NDA
Before convening, the group was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement — a contract that plunges the relationship between Nextdoor and city officials into murkier ethical territory, says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who specializes in government ethics.
Tech companies are notorious for serving NDAs to everyone from lunch guests to City Hall officials, particularly during corporate real estate negotiations. During Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, for example, NDAs signed by bidding officials allowed governments to dangle large tax incentives without public oversight; when Google worked with San Jose to buy space for a new campus, the local labor organization Working Parties USA found that 18 city employees had NDAs barring them from discussing the deal. NDAs between the FBI and local police departments shrouded the details of officers’ use of StingRay cell-phone trackers.
In the terms of Nextdoor’s NDA, advisory council members are not allowed to release public statements about the partnership without the consent of Nextdoor, nor are they able to follow a court order to disclose any information deemed confidential by Nextdoor without alerting the company first. The document is the same one it gives to all business partners, the company said, and is meant to protect confidential information like product ideas.
Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, says that if applied appropriately, such an NDA would be used to protect trade secrets. “Of course it’s normal, in the sense that within [the tech] sector there are NDAs all over the place,” said Clark. “It doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in that sector … or appropriate with regards to government officials.”
Husted, McGregor, Foss, Nelson and Licamele confirmed that they had signed the document. David Hicks, a sergeant with Montgomery, Alabama’s police department who runs the department’s social media, declined to confirm whether he had, but confirmed that he is a member of the Public Agencies Advisory Council, for which signing the NDA was a prerequisite. (The police department declined to respond to a public records request.) Warren Kagarise, the digital engagement manager for King County, Washington, also signed the NDA, according to a CityLab review of the documents, but did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Foss and Nelson said they didn’t think the agreement was unusual for a software company that has proprietary information it wants to protect, and said they have not signed NDAs with any other tech company. McGregor said that the NDA did not preclude her from being transparent about their partnership. Francis Zamora, the director of external affairs for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency management — the last member of the advisory council — did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Though there are few rules prohibiting them from signing such a document, the practice could help shroud government decisions from the public, says Guariglia from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And the NDA’s “heads-up” clause could give agencies the leeway to alert the company before complying with freedom of information act requests.
After CityLab requested public records from Husted’s department, he alerted Nextdoor spokesperson Edie Campbell-Urban, though he said that he wasn’t doing so because of any terms of the NDA. When CityLab requested similar records from Kagarise, the county’s Office of Risk Management services informed CityLab that it was delaying its answer, in part because they were busy dealing with Covid-19. They said they would also be informing Nextdoor Inc. of the public records request, pursuant to a state law protecting third parties from information “not in the public interest” that would “substantially and irreparably damage” the third party or the government.
“There are compelling reasons for transparency around the activities of public employees in general, but the need for transparency is at its height when it comes to law enforcement agencies,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It would be quite troubling to learn that police officers were investigating and arresting people using data from private companies with which they have signed an NDA.”
Privacy advocates say that alone, Nextdoor isn’t the most powerful surveillance tool out there, but there’s a growing “mosaic of apps” police departments and local governments are relying on, Guariglia says. And together, these doorbell recorders, surveillance cameras, and virtual neighborhood watches are affecting the sense of public safety in some communities.
“Our entire country — and California, and the Bay Area specifically — we’re at a 40-year historic low for violent crime … and yet people are walking around like we’re living in the most violent place in the world,” said Secure Justice’s Hofer. “These vendors are doing a really great job of creating a sense of fear.”
Forward to Police
As coronavirus creeps through communities, real fears are not in short supply. And as the radius of public life for many people shrinks down to their zip codes, Nextdoor has become a lifeline.
These days, scrolling through the platform offers heartwarming reminders of the power of neighborhood ties: Informal barter systems have cropped up, along with mask donation banks, words of support for essential workers and updates on favorite local restaurants’ delivery policies.
For its part, Nextdoor has risen to meet the coronavirus crisis with new features and rules. To stop people from using stigmatizing or stereotypical language when talking about the pandemic, the company rolled out a new speech policy. To limit misinformation, searching for coronavirus-related terms prompts a pop-up with a CDC and WHO-sourced tip sheet.
Nextdoor also makes it clear that users cannot file an official police report through its platform. But while police officers can’t monitor conversations on private groups, a feature launched by Nextdoor in 2016 called “Forward to Police” allows users to send copies of their posts directly to the officers monitoring the account. Every police department in a city using Nextdoor is eligible to activate the feature, but the company wouldn’t reveal how many departments currently use it; a cursory review by CityLab showed at least 30 departments had announced they were using the feature, from California to Virginia. On Feb. 12, the company released a new app designed specifically for cities and police departments, allowing them to access the site on a mobile platform, streamlining the communications between citizens and authorities even more.
Nelson clarifies that Mountain View, which has used Forward to Police for years, does not use any social media platform to generate a call for service. “If someone were to send us a DM or message or Forward to Police … that’s to alert us that there is a conversation happening in our community that they would like us to be aware of,” she said.
Still, the company’s Public Agencies product marketing materials draw a causal link between crime decline and Nextdoor adoption in neighborhoods: It claims that by doubling Nextdoor users in Sacramento, crime fell by 7.7% in a year, with no proof of correlation. (A Sacramento official contacted by CityLab in February said it would be hard to make that connection.) The platform also claims responsibility for six arrests for break-ins in Phoenix, and stopping a local crime spree in Nashville. Presenting these case studies echoes Ring’s strategy: Amazon says that Ring’s entrance into a neighborhood is associated with increased public safety, but an NBC News investigation showed that footage “rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.”
Making the process of small reporting crimes even easier — and asking people to do more of it — could lead to over-policing in areas of high Nextdoor usage, Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco, told CityLab in February. Paired with users’ propensity for racial profiling, these effects might be felt more acutely among black and brown communities.
Montgomery’s Hicks sees increased reporting as a valuable byproduct of the platform. The department has 32,000 people in its network. “If they see suspicious activity in their neighborhood, or someone in a yard they shouldn’t be in and they know the neighbor, they call us,” he said. “We’ve built that relationship.” And in Sedona, Husted says Nextdoor helped apprehend a machete-wielding vandal last year.
In Mountain View, the Silicon Valley city home to Google, Nextdoor adoptions is already high: 45% of city residents use the platform, Nelson says. “This is the audience that matters most to us,” she said, referring to those who live within city boundaries.
The kind of widespread agency and neighborhood adoption Nextdoor is pushing for will benefit the public by increasing civic engagement and getting more accurate information out to the public, proponents say. “It is conceivable that a company might want government officials to know about a service that is available,” said Clark, the government ethics professor. “And the benefit to the public might outweigh any concern of a private benefit to a public official, like receiving a trip for an educational program.”
Before coronavirus, Foss told CityLab that it would help if more neighboring agencies signed up for Nextdoor to share information about disasters like wildfires, which don’t know city or county boundaries. Neither do infectious diseases.
Regardless of its utility in the public realm, the Project on Government Oversight’s Laperruque says that an endorsement by a public official can easily cross a line. “It definitely troubles me when you see any sort of situation where a vendor is not just being treated by someone who has a product to sell, but as a collaborative partner they might lean on,” he said. “The interest of a technology company is to their bottom line, it’s not to the public welfare.”