group me app racial profiling
Shop owners in Washington, D.C., are accused of using a mobile app for racially profiling African-Americans they believe are shoplifters. Pictured: A customer uses a mobile app on an iPhone to complete a transaction at a Stop & Shop supermarket in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 2011. Reuters/Adam Hunger

GroupMe, a widely used group-messaging mobile app acquired by Microsoft several years ago, is in the spotlight following a report that upscale shops in Washington, D.C., are using it to racially profile African-American shoppers. The vast majority of messages sent among shopkeepers in Washington’s posh Georgetown district are about black customers, CBS News reported this week.

Shoplifting is a problem in the affluent D.C. neighborhood where the median household income is nearly $120,000 and where residents are 80 percent white. There have been 120 reported shop thefts over the past two months, according to news reports.

One community newspaper reporter who reviewed hundreds of messages sent among 380 members of the Georgetown Business Improvement District said racial bias against black customers is obvious. "Not only was there this jump to a conclusion that somebody has committed a crime because they're suspicious or because they're wearing a certain thing or they have a certain hairstyle, but also the people who are texting each other are sort of reveling in this game of following people around and saying who's suspicious," Peter Murray, reporter for the Georgetowner, told CBS News.

From March 1 to July 5 of this year, shopkeepers sent group messages about 330 people, warning others of suspicious or criminal activity, Murray found. African-Americans were described in 72 percent of the messages.

"AA [black] female late 20...just stole from [upscale clothing brand] Lacoste," read one post. "Need someone ASAP...person walking out...[black] male," read another message.

The shopkeepers had been using GroupMe to counter crime. The group uses the app like a private chat room and includes merchants, store employees, community leaders and on-duty police officers. Joe Sternlieb, president of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said the group developed policies against abuse and racism in the GroupMe chat room.

"If somebody posts something that's inappropriate, the group… meets with the person, retrains them, [and] makes sure they are comfortable with the rules,” Sternlieb said. “And if they don't, we kick them off."

A GroupMe app representative declined CBS’s request for comment Thursday. The app had amassed 4.6 million users in 2012, just two years after its launch, according to a report by Next Web.

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