Last month, LA saw its first major fire of what’s expected to be a devastating season. That night, neighborhood watch app Citizen was blowing up users' phones with notifications about the blaze in the Pacific Palisades. As it turned out, users and the app's employees had identified a suspect in the arson. His photo was plastered all over push notifications and the app even offered a $30,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
There was one problem though: he wasn’t the man who police say set the fire. He was innocent and had nothing to do with the fire other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The incident highlights big problems with the Citizen app and how it tries to thread the needle of money-making tech startup, public service, and a hyperlocal news source.
Citizen focuses on the reporting and dissemination of local crime. Users interact with one another through the app and can comment on incidents and talk with other users. Incidents are uploaded by Citizen employees, who listen to police scanners and summarize the event in the app. Workers must meet quotas and productivity is measured by not only how many incidents they produce, but the speed at which they do it. All that is according to Joseph Cox, who covers hackers, crime and privacy for Vice’s Motherboard.
“They're measured literally in seconds, from the point of the police audio, to getting [it] into the app, to getting the push notification. And ultimately how many people see that notification and engage with it,” Cox tells KCRW. “You have that friction of it being a public service, but also trying to get users to click on the app, to open a message, to click on one of the push notifications, just like you know, Facebook, or Twitter or Instagram would.”
He adds “That friction, in that they're trying to simultaneously be a service while a revenue generating business, it leads to these more extreme things like the bounty hunt.”
‘A chance to demonstrate the utility of Citizen’
According to Cox, Citizen CEO Andrew Frame was a central figure in the bounty hunt for the suspected arsonist responsible for the Palisades fire.
“Frame explicitly saw this as a chance to demonstrate the utility of Citizen. … Frame saw that as a chance to bring in more viewers and really show that ‘Hey, look. We're Citizen. We can catch the bad guys.’
That night, Cox says the company used the arson as a chance to broadcast live, using the help of a pseudo-cable news show with presenters reading out tips from users.
The toll of constant push notifications
Part of Citizen’s model relies on sending constant, low value push notifications. Alerts range from lost dog, injured bird, car crashes, to unsubstantiated reports of gunshots.
Cox says the alert bombardment could serve to agitate users. Citizen offers a $20 a month service which provides an on-call employee who can track a user’s location and dial 911 if needed.
“Multiple former employees I spoke to interpreted this as trying to put the user in a state of anxiety or perceived vulnerability — in the hope that ultimately, this person would sign up to citizens paid service. ... But nobody's gonna pay for that product, unless they think they're in danger, right” he says. “That’s sort of Citizen’s goal, because again, this is a free app. Anyone can download it. Anyone can use it. But that's not realistically generating any sort of revenue, let alone profit for what is at the end of the day, a tech business.”
The real world implications of Citizen
According to Cox, Citizen has become a hotbed of racist remarks, similar to the hyperlocal social network Nextdoor. He says a recent cache of in-app comments he received from a hacker were rife with slurs and other comments.
“This is, again, like Facebook or Twitter or any other social network. It has its own fountain of user generated content. And unfortunately, that's going to reflect the people who were using it. And when this is an app that is about the perception of crime [and] the reporting of crime, those potential seeds of racism are only going to get amplified when you're in a setting like this.”
Cox says there have also been reports of an all-black, Citizen-branded security vehicle driving around Los Angeles. When he reached out to the company, they said the car was part of a pilot program to test on-demand private security. Internal emails suggested the pilot was referred to by the LAPD as a game changer when it comes to certain types of crime.
Cox points out the program raises concerns, due in part to who the company is working with. He says Citizen collaborated with security companies, such as Los Angeles Professional Security.
“It's not Citizen employees in the vehicles themselves driving around, at least it seems. They are partnering with already established security vendors. One of those was Los Angeles Professional Security, whose CEO explicitly says that he wants the power to be able to arrest people and take people to jail, which, of course, is usually something which is carried out by law enforcement,” Cox says.
“That's not to say that Citizen itself wants to do that. But it does show the sort of people that it is associating with as part of this program.”
Cox points out that what Citizen is doing might not be illegal, but it pushes the boundaries of what’s ethical.