Remember Vigilante? The controversial crime reporting app was kicked out of the App Store in November shortly after its release because Apple believed it encouraged private citizens to engage in, well…vigilantism. Now the app is back, under different branding. The new “Citizen” app, operating in New York City, will send you real-time crime reports based on 911 calls, as well as offer a way for users to live stream crimes, and comment on them.
In its launch blog post, the Vigilante app had cited a former police officer who said that “average and ordinary” citizens should approach the problem of crime “as a group.” Combined with the app’s name “Vigilante,” there seemed to be a very real danger that people would take this as a direction to put themselves in harm’s way, or take on crime directly, sans police.
The new Citizen app dials down the potential for direct involvement from its users. Citizen instead suggests that users live stream crimes and incidents for others to see and comment on. It also pops up a window to offer “stronger guidance” to “never approach a crime scene, interfere with an incident, or get in the way of police,” as the app’s description states.
But what isn’t immediately clear is that the app’s content comes from a curated selection of 911 calls.
“There are about 10,000 911 calls per day in NYC. We include 300-400 on average,” says sp0n CEO Andrew Frame. (sp0n is the maker of the application.)
The company says the app only lists those calls that are a threat to “public safety.”
It has not published the vetting criteria it uses, however, saying that’s a work in progress. Frame says that calls of “suspicious people,” “suspicious bags” or suitcases, and drug incidents are not shown in the app at present.
The app does, however, allow users to see incidents as red dots on a map, which is something that could make it a tool for avoiding particular areas. This is by design.
Its take on crime mapping is a little different from the horrible apps “GhettoTracker” and “SketchFactor,” which used public data to help (white) people avoid (non-white) supposedly “dangerous” neighborhoods. Citizen, however, is displaying current incidents as reported to 911, and it alerts you through push notifications when those are taking place.
That way if there’s a “fight at Applebee’s” (yes, this is a real incident the app included today), you can avoid heading there to eat right now.
However, an article by The Outline noted that a feature that lets users report crimes and incidents is still live. And indeed, the app today sports a “Report Incident” button.
Not all incidents reported meet the qualifications for being posted to the app, and the feature is hardly used, says Frame. But the fact that it exists and the app’s intentions are unclear (does it want user-generated content or not?) remains an issue.
Frame says the next version of the app will remove this button.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding. We need to do a better job of explaining it,” he says. “We’re treading very carefully. That’s why it’s buried in the other part of the app. If ‘report incident’ was the central part of the app, as soon as you opened it there would be a central exclamation point that you’d be lured into pressing.”
It seems obvious to an outsider, in Trump’s America where people are encouraged to report “voter fraud” with their smartphones, that an app offering the ability for users to report their own interpretations of crime could be heading into dangerous territory. Just look what happened with Nextdoor, where racial profiling became so prevalent, the product had to get a makeover to prevent it.
“I promise you I’m removing it,” Frame says of the user-reporting button, saying the feature has become a distraction to the app’s core mission. That mission is “to reduce crime, not the exploitation of people,” he argues.
But The Outline also suggested that asking users to live stream incidents could lead to other issues, too. The identity of a crucial witness could be revealed, it noted, quoting Sam Gregory, program director for WITNESS, a nonprofit that trains people on how to ethically use video to expose human rights violations. He also pointed out that Citizen could be used to share “an incredibly humiliating video of someone being assaulted,” or “make someone appear like they’re guilty when they may not be.”
Frame responded to these issues initially by saying that they simply hadn’t come up yet.
Pressed for detail, he added that “this is a transparency app. Transparency eliminates bias. Transparency eliminates insecurity and all the misunderstandings around what happened. The result of the transparency, we can’t control,” he says.
We also asked Frame if he had read Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.” He had not.
The book, soon to be a movie, features a Google-like tech company whose “SeeChange cameras” are worn all the time by people, including politicians wishing to be ‘transparent.’ The cameras are surreptitiously mounted all over the world by citizens, as well.
Basically, it’s a riff on “1984,” but one where “Big Brother” becomes crowdsourced.
“We don’t believe in surveillance everywhere,” argues Frame. “When there’s an incident, that’s the only time you can go live on this app,” he says.
Yet cameras are everywhere, thanks to smartphones. And Citizen’s premise is that all crimes threatening public safety should be aggregated and streamed, consequences be damned, because this is how crime will be reduced.
Citizen is backed by $3 million in seed funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund (via FF Angel), Slow Ventures, RRE Ventures, Kapor Capital (via Ben Jealous, a former CEO of the NAACP) and other angel investors.