In May, the neighborhood crime watch app Citizen offered its user base $ 30,000 to track down a suspected arsonist on a live video, only to find out they had sent a mob of civilians after the wrong. guys. Now Citizen is secretly hiring reporters to broadcast live on the app at crime scenes for $ 25 an hour through third-party websites. I’m tired.
When Citizen first appeared on the App Store in 2016, it was called Vigilante – it presented itself as a platform to fight injustice with transparency, which may sound good in theory, but in practice, it has deliberately encouraged users to search for crime scenes to report them. . Vigilante was removed from the App Store for violating a clause in Apple’s App Developer Review Guidelines that an app should not be “likely to cause physical harm as a result of its use.”
Surely that would be the end of the nascent platform. But like a cockroach after an apocalypse, the app continued. It rebranded itself as Citizen, added warnings that no one should interfere with a crime scene, reinstated itself in the App Store, and continued to fundraise VC. Now the app is like a participatory crime blotter – as its App Store page puts it, “Citizen may notify you of an ongoing crime before the police respond.” But this level of hypervigilance can fuel panic, rather than making people feel safe, not to mention the fact that user-reported criminal incidents can be incorrect at best and racist at worst. The app pulls data from 911 calls, but not all information in those dispatches is verified, which can be a false cause for concern.
But Citizen can only work if it has a sufficient user base, and its attempts to get civilians to use the app are increasingly desperate. According to SensorTower, the app hit a monthly download peak in June 2020, following widespread Black Lives Matter protests. (So as the country protested against police brutality, 677,000 people responded by downloading a police app). But the following month, only 207,000 people downloaded the app. Growth since then has been quite stagnant – 292,000 people downloaded Citizen in March 2020 and 283,000 people downloaded it in March 2021.
In June, the Daily Dot reported that a specific user named “Landon” was live-streaming several crime scenes in one day, attempting to interview witnesses and first responders – given how often he seemed to come across these. crime scenes, it seemed unlikely that he was just an enthusiastic user of the app. Yesterday the New York Post reported on another user named “Chris” who broadcast live on Citizen six emergencies in one day. Citizen has confirmed that Landon and Chris are working for the app as members of their Street Team.
“Citizen has set up teams in some of the cities where the app is available to demonstrate how the platform works and to model responsible release practices in real-time event situations. We believe these teams will ultimately help guide our users on how to broadcast efficiently, usefully and securely, ”a Citizen spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Citizen has had Street Teams since the launch of the application; a spokesperson said they never tried to hide it. But these jobs are not listed on the Citizen site. Instead, they’re listed by a third-party recruiter called Flyover Entertainment on the JournalismJobs board of directors without a mention of Citizen. A NYU journalism website shared a similar list, which included the citizen’s name. Citizen confirmed to TechCrunch that these two lists are for the app’s Street Team. Citizen pays $ 250 per day for a 10-hour shift in Los Angeles and $ 200 per day for an 8-hour shift in New York City, which works out to $ 25 an hour.
“Broadcast journalists have experience in safe and responsible broadcasting. This is a requirement for members of our street team, ”Citizen spokesperson said. When asked why these job postings were posted on third-party job sites, but not on Citizen’s website, the spokesperson reiterated that it was because Citizen specifically wanted to find journalists. However, he could presumably also find journalists on his own website.
State vigilance concerns aside, local news is dying and Citizen is not designed to substitute for neighborhood journalism. Of course, local newspapers are also talking about crimes, and it’s not as if Citizen is doing anything unprecedented by sending reporters to crime scenes. But there is a difference between reporting news and streaming live from a crime scene on a surveillance app that only reveals who is a paid worker and who is an average civilian when asked directly. For an app that’s modeled on “increasing transparency”, these secret job postings don’t seem so transparent. Plus, for an infrequent indie gig with no benefits or paid time off that requires established broadcast skills, $ 25 an hour is a terrible rate.
Now, Citizen’s latest attempt to grow is a paid service for $ 19.99 per month called Protect, which allows users to send their location and a live feed from their camera to a Protect agent. Citizen says its protection officers include former law enforcement officers and 911 operators, who can send an “instant emergency response” to an emergency. It sounds like paying to get a personal 911 operator, which, again, looks like a bad alternative to the police, an already poor system.
Perhaps Silicon Valley tech companies aren’t the answer to America’s centuries-old crises of police brutality, racial profiling, and surveillance. Perhaps a better way to reduce crime is to make sure everyone has access to health care, jobs and affordable housing. Who knows!