Citizen — The App That Wants To Be A Cop — Offered A $30,000 Bounty For The Apprehension Of An Innocent Person
from the nice-going,-fuckos dept
Citizen — an app for reporting crime and other suspicious events — wants to be in the police business. The app developers have purchased at least one faux patrol vehicle — co-branded with Los Angeles Professional Security — and have been driving it around Los Angeles, California.
But should private companies be in the business of enforcing the law? Most people would say no. We have enough problems with our actual cops — ones who are supposed to remain on the right side of the Constitution. Private companies don’t have these obligations. That’s why they don’t have the power (or the ability) to take other people’s rights away. But the effort to cloud the lines between public and private is continuous, and it’s going to do additional damage to citizens who are already subjected to the violations perpetrated by government employees.
Let’s not forget that Citizen has always been willing to blur these lines. It debuted as “Vigilante” before its booting from Apple’s app store forced a more friendly rebrand. But Citizen hasn’t abandoned its vigilante principals. The people at the top of the organizational chart are aggressively pursuing private expansion into public law enforcement space and courting some of the nation’s largest police departments.
They’re also living up to the “vigilante” moniker. Prior to the leaks to Joseph Cox and Motherboard, Citizen was publicly and privately urging the public to take justice into their own hands, as Scott Morris reports for The Verge.
As wildfires raged through Southern California last weekend, an app called Citizen offered an unorthodox bounty over livestream and in push alerts to local residents: “hunt down” the alleged arsonist, and we’ll give you $30,000 cash.
This effort was pushed by none other than CEO Andrew Frame. Internal messages from Citizen’s Slack channel show Frame wanted to put Citizen on the law enforcement map by turning users and employees into bounty hunters. Literally.
On Saturday afternoon, before the livestream was broadcast, Frame wrote in a company Slack thread that he would pay a $10,000 reward personally to catch an arsonist still in the area “as a test.”
“Let’s find this guy, activate safety network completely,” Frame wrote, according to screenshots of internal Slack messages obtained by The Verge. “This is a great transition of Citizen back to active safety. We are not a news company. We are safety and we make this sort of heinous crime impossible to escape from. That needs to be our mindset.” The bounty was later raised to $30,000.
LOL. “Safety network.” Whatever. Frame saw this as a chance to turn Citizen from a news receptacle to a newsmaker, despite his mild protestations otherwise. If Citizen could catch a criminal, it would convert it from a receptacle for user videos and police scanner readouts into something that could actually combat crime. Employees were urged on by Frame, who made it clear he had a fever. And the only cure was “MORE VIGILANTISM!” Joseph Cox has obtained even more internal communications about this dangerous farce.
“first name? What is it?! publish ALL info,” Frame told employees working in a Citizen Slack room who were working on the case.
“FIND THIS FUCK,” he told them. “LETS GET THIS GUY BEFORE MIDNIGHT HES GOING DOWN.”
“BREAKING NEWS. this guy is the devil. get him,” Frame said. “by midnight!@#! we hate this guy. GET HIM.”
Huh. Looks kind of like threats in interstate commerce or whatnot. But what do I know. I’m not a cop. Nor do I desire to be one. The plan of action was to fire up the home team. And then let it all burn. In the end, Citizen was just another Reddit, sending amped-up internet vigilantes in search of the wrong person.
In the hours that followed, it became clear the app was mistaken. The man pictured had no connection to the fires, and once he was located by law enforcement, he was quickly released for lack of evidence.
No harm? No foul? Wrong. A person was wrongfully detained as the result of an app’s overzealous CEO and his promise of a $30,000 payout. Citizen apologized soon after, calling it a “mistake” it was “taking very seriously.” It also promised to overhaul its “internal processes.” It seems like the first overhaul should be to prevent its CEO from weaponizing his app and offering bounties for the information leading to arrests. That’s not the business Citizen is in. Yet.
Clearly, Citizen wants more. Andrew Frame got his taste for blood. The blood may have been tainted but it hasn’t deterred Frame and his app from pushing for its addition to law enforcement’s arsenal. But this wielding of its power doesn’t bode well for its intrusion into this space. Sure, cops arrest the wrong people all the time. But that doesn’t mean private companies should get in on this racket. We need less of this, not more. And when apps like these encourage people to act on their impulses, they not only encourage physical manifestations of users’ underlying biases, they place innocent people in harm’s way.