Aug 20, 2020

Public-safety apps might keep you informed. But are they good for the public?

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Apps like Citizen might make users think that only bad things are happening in their neighborhoods.

Since March, the number of people downloading the safety-awareness app Citizen has doubled. Citizen gathers local reports from emergency scanners and other public information to notify users of potential nearby criminal activity and threats to their safety, including fires, weather hazards and protests. It also lets users upload video of what’s happening.

The company recently added COVID-19 contact tracing to the app. Citizen says it keeps people safe and informed. But, as is the case with the Nextdoor social-networking service and Ring and other safety products, there are fears of unintended consequences, including paranoia, surveillance, and danger of injury while videotaping a crime. Racism can also be inherent in crime reporting. 

I spoke with Andrew Frame, founder and CEO of Citizen, about some of those potential unintended consequences. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Andrew Frame (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Andrew Frame: There are two things that make somebody feel unsafe. No. 1, not knowing what’s going on. No. 2, knowing what’s going on. The reality is there’s a lot of crime, there’s a lot of unsafe situations, and regardless, that’s not going away. You can either tune in to it, or you can tune out. And if you want to tune out, don’t use Citizen, don’t watch the news. Just live in your bliss, and try not to tune in to anything. If you use Citizen, you will be aware of everything going on around you. Most of our users find this very empowering because they want to know what’s going on.

Molly Wood: I hear you, but that seems a little simple. There could be a middle ground. Isn’t there the possibility that you get a skewed perspective, that all you see is everything that’s going on, even if most of those things don’t actually affect you?

Frame: You never know what is going to affect you. So luckily, if you’re unaffected by an incident, great, you know about it, maybe it was three-tenths of a mile away and it’s not going to affect you. But sometimes it is going to affect you. And we have countless stories and reports, we call them “magic moments,” of people whose lives were changed by these notifications. It’s not a rare occasion. I went to the supermarket one day, and I was talking to the person at the checkout and we were talking about Citizen. And sometimes I like to do just a little user research. This user escaped a fire with her family. She couldn’t believe it. And we were talking about it. And she had a personal experience. And that’s the kind of stuff I find so fascinating, is if you talk to Citizen users, it’s very easy to get these stories, to get these close calls and these encounters where it had a direct impact on them. And we hear about them all the time, and it’s not a one out of a million. You can literally talk to almost every Citizen user and get an interesting story on how it has helped them. 

Wood: Do you think there are any unintended consequences to your app?

Frame: For sure. This is a complicated, gray area. When I was first starting this, I had a lot of anxiety over what we were doing and how we intended on doing this responsibly. We decided it was unacceptable to send any sort of alert about a suspicious person because that’s not a crime. And there is usually some sort of racial bias underneath all of that. We have never entered a suspicious person into the app, in spite of hundreds of 911 calls a day to the police reporting suspicious people that we know about. It’s in our system, we choose to filter it.

Wood: What if one of those suspicious people does turn out to commit a crime and then you didn’t have full transparency? I wonder if you feel comfortable with it being your job to decide what’s safe, what’s not safe, what’s racist, what’s not racist, because there’s a lot at stake as you’ve described it.

Frame: There’s a ton at stake and there’s no hard place where it makes sense to draw the line, but you have to draw the line. And when you’re building new technologies, you’re not sure what the unintended consequences are ultimately going to be. You can only use your best wisdom and judgment and do something that you think is right for the greater good.

Wood: The app is free, you don’t sell ads or user data. What is the plan to monetize?

Frame: If you would like to have enhanced offerings and services from Citizen, you will pay us. Those announcements are coming at a later time.

Wood: You’re not using proprietary data, though, right? It’s data that is publicly available, [like] police, fire emergency service radio calls combined with GPS?

Frame: Yeah, it’s certainly not proprietary, but I don’t think it was people’s intention to create a really simple consumer app that made it so anybody could just consume this experience in real time and know everything that is going on in their city. I don’t think that was the intention with open radios. I think it was more of a limitation that radios back then didn’t have encryption and it was the only way to communicate between two radios, and it was open. And a byproduct of that openness was we were able to create a system that leveraged the collection of all radios and turn that noise into magic by giving it to the people who deserve and need it to keep them safe.

Wood: Do you think, in an ideal world, it would actually be better if municipalities and police departments created this on their own? Should it have to be the job of a, ultimately, a private company?

Frame: I mean, they didn’t do it, so I don’t know. Had they done it, we wouldn’t have needed to do it. I don’t think they ever intended on doing it. And it was something that was necessary, so we did it. 

Wood: Who advises you? When you talk about having to make these decisions and having the wisdom to know the difference, tell me about your team and who is helping you make these calls. 

Frame: We have so many great people across the board. We work with violence interrupters across New York City and beyond. There are great violence interrupter leaders like Erica Ford, who has advised us. We’ve got a former CEO of the NAACP, who’s an extremely close friend of mine and mentor named Ben Jealous, who’s been involved from the very, very beginning. On the police side, trying to understand how the police think about this, Bill Bratton, the former NYPD police commissioner and Los Angeles police [chief], had very valuable input on how to do this. And everybody does believe that this is the way of the future. We spent a lot of time listening to all sides. 

Wood: One thing one of our producers said was that she uses this app and only gets the sense that bad things are happening. Have you thought in future iterations about offering solutions or highlighting ways that people could volunteer or take CPR classes or become involved in neighborhood groups to help after earthquakes?

Frame: On the home screen of the app, you will see a heart if you look at the upper right. If you tap the heart, you will see a whole bunch of incidents, which we call “magic moments.” These are happy incidents. These are missing kids that were returned to their parents because of the app, one of which was kidnapped and taken to an office building where two app users got the alert, got the kid’s photo and were able to call the police. And it turns out that the kidnapper, who said that he had just found this kid, was out on bail for sex abuse against a 3-year-old. And I think the boy was either 3 or 4 at the time. So there are so many great stories and we are working to do a better job at elevating those magic moments. Over time, I would love to see 50% magic moments, 50% of the good of the community and all the love that people spread and all of the goodness that’s going on, and 50% of what you need to watch out for. And that’s a goal over time, but right now, there is a lot of bad. And this is a public-safety app. People call 911 when something bad is happening, and you download Citizen in order to tune in to that information. So if that’s not what you wanted to tune into, then Citizen might not be the right app for you.

Wood: But you have just recently added contact tracing around COVID-19, which is public health-related, but slightly different. How does that fit in with this mission? 

Frame: Citizen is not a product. Citizen is a mission to keep our users safe. The main top-of-mind issue of safety right now happens to be biological. And so as much as people want to find out about a robbery or a fire, they want to know where COVID-19 is. And so we now have the No. 1 contact tracing system in the United States. We launched it a couple days ago, we are just getting started. We’ve already had 102 notifications going out to users of potential exposures. And you’re also offered the ability to get a free test right from Citizen. The box will show up in a couple days. You put in your saliva sample and you’ll get a notification right on your phone telling you your result is available, and you either are positive or negative for COVID-19. If you’re positive, all of the people you may have exposed in the last several days are also notified of the potential exposure. If we can get this to scale, every epidemiologist we’ve spoken to said this should absolutely contain COVID-19 if we can get everybody on this system. But safety is our wheelhouse. It’s why a mission-based company is so important, because it gives you license to act. When you don’t have a clear mission, it’s not clear. Should we be doing something on COVID-19? Should we be doing something with police reform? For us, yes on both, because those are both safety issues.

Wood: Almost every other company that’s in this space, from Ring to Palantir to Clearview AI, has eventually pivoted or started out working with law enforcement, and that makes people nervous. And I think it’s fair to ask if that’s part of your plan.

Frame: The answer is no. I think if I were to announce that we are doing a pivot, and we are now going to be selling data to law enforcement, I think you would see about 90% of all of Citizen employees putting in their resignation that day. It would destroy our culture instantaneously.

Citizen’s SafePass offers testing, contact tracing and symptom tracking. (Photo courtesy Citizen)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

There is a lot more reading about Citizen, including a long read from Wired that starts with the story of a 12-year-old boy who has his mom rush him to the scene of everything he sees reported on Citizen so he can take videos and comment on them. It’s an example of the weird incentives that can happen when public safety is also social networking and an example of something that police say can encourage people to endanger themselves to contribute to Citizen. After all, this is an app that first launched as a product called Vigilante. There’s more on that in Philadelphia magazine as well.

Also watching:

Airbnb is filing to go public. The company filed its paperwork late Wednesday afternoon. More on that as it develops.

And we’ll talk more on the show about QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy group that also often suggests violent extremism. Facebook on Wednesday made its biggest move yet against the group, taking down thousands of groups, pages and accounts across Facebook and Instagram.

That move came after news stories that suggested that Facebook Groups had provided great shelter for QAnon over the years, allowing it to grow from a set of small conspiracy theories to a point where a QAnon supporter won a Republican primary in Georgia, saying that she is dedicated to taking out the “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles” that QAnon believes is plotting against President Donald Trump.

It’s been so effective at promoting conspiracy theories ranging from anti-vaxxing to racist birtherism that, according to Facebook insiders who spoke to The New York Times, Facebook has held off on taking down QAnon pages and content because they were afraid it would feed into the theory that social media companies are trying to silence them specifically and conservatives generally. And most people who’ve talked to The Times about it lately did so anonymously because they’re so worried about QAnon supporters coming after them.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer