Technology rarely invents new societal problems. Instead, it digitizes them, supersizes them, and allows them to balloon and duplicate at the speed of light. That’s exactly the problem we’ve seen with location-based, crowd-sourced “public safety” apps like Citizen.
These apps come in a wide spectrum—some let users connect with those around them by posting pictures, items for sale, or local tips. Others, however, focus exclusively on things and people that users see as “suspicious” or potentially hazardous. These alerts run the gamut from active crimes, or the aftermath of crimes, to generally anything a person interprets as helping to keep their community safe and informed about the dangers around them.
"Users of apps like Citizen, Nextdoor, and Neighbors should be vigilant about unverified claims"
These apps are often designed with a goal of crowd-sourced surveillance, like a digital neighborhood watch. A way of turning the aggregate eyes (and phones) of the neighborhood into an early warning system. But instead, they often exacerbate the same dangers, biases, and problems that exist within policing. After all, the likely outcome to posting a suspicious sight to the app isn’t just to warn your neighbors—it’s to summon authorities to address the issue.
And even worse than incentivizing people to share their most paranoid thoughts and racial biases on a popular platform are the experimental new features constantly being rolled out by apps like Citizen. First, it was a private security force, available to be summoned at the touch of a button. Then, it was a service to help make it (theoretically) even easier to summon the police by giving users access to a 24/7 concierge service who will call the police for you. There are scenarios in which a tool like this might be useful—but to charge people for it, and more importantly, to make people think they will eventually need a service like this—adds to the idea that companies benefit from your fear.
These apps might seem like a helpful way to inform your neighbors if the mountain lion roaming your city was spotted in your neighborhood. But in practice they have been a cesspool of racial profiling, cop-calling, gatekeeping, and fear-spreading. Apps where a so-called “suspicious” person’s picture can be blasted out to a paranoid community, because someone with a smartphone thinks they don’t belong, are not helping people to “Connect and stay safe.” Instead, they promote public safety for some, at the expense of surveillance and harassment for others.
Digitizing an Age Old Problem
Paranoia about crime and racial gatekeeping in certain neighborhoods is not a new problem. Citizen takes that old problem and digitizes it, making those knee-jerk sightings of so-called suspicious behavior capable of being broadcast to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the area.
But focusing those forums on crime, suspicion, danger, and bad-faith accusations can create havoc. No one is planning their block party on Citizen like they might be on other apps, which is filled with notifications like “unconfirmed report of a man armed with pipe” and “unknown police activity.” Neighbors aren’t likely to coordinate trick-or-treating on a forum they exclusively use to see if any cars in their neighborhood were broken into. And when you download an app that makes you feel like a neighborhood you were formerly comfortable in is now under siege, you’re going to use it not just to doom scroll your way through strange sightings, but also to report your own suspicions.
There is a massive difference between listening to police scanners, a medium that reflects the ever-changing and updating nature of fluid situations on the street, and taking one second of that live broadcast and turning it into a fixed, unverified, news report. Police scanners can be useful by many people for many reasons and ought to stay accessible, but listening to a livestream presents an entirely different context than seeing a fixed geo-tagged alert on a map.
As the New York Times writes, Citizen is “converting raw scanner traffic—which is by nature unvetted and mostly operational—into filtered, curated digital content, legible to regular people, rendered on a map in a far more digestible form.” In other words, they’re turning static into content with the same formula the long-running show Cops used to normalize both paranoia and police violence.
Police scanners reflect the raw data of dispatch calls and police response to them, not a confirmation of crime and wrongdoing. This is not to say that the scanner traffic isn’t valuable or important—the public often uses it to learn what police are doing in their neighborhood. And last year, protesters relied on scanner traffic to protect themselves as they exercised their First Amendment rights.
But publication of raw data is likely to give the impression that a neighborhood has far more crime than it does. As any journalist will tell you, scanner traffic should be viewed like a tip and be the starting point of a potential story, rather than being republished without any verification or context. Worse, once Citizen receives a report, many stay up for days, giving the overall impression to a user that a neighborhood is currently besieged by incidents—when many are unconfirmed, and some happened four or five days ago.
From Neighborhood Forum to Vigilante-Enabler
It’s well known that Citizen began its life as “Vigilante,” and much of its DNA and operating procedure continue to match its former moniker. Citizen, more so than any other app, is unsure if it wants to be a community forum or a Star Wars cantina where bounty hunters and vigilantes wait for the app to post a reward for information leading to a person’s arrest.
When a brush fire broke out in Los Angeles in May 2021, almost a million people saw a notification pushed by Citizen offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man they thought was responsible. It is the definition of dangerous that the app offered money to thousands of users, inviting them to turn over information on an unhoused man who was totally innocent.
Make no mistake, this kind of crass stunt can get people hurt. It demonstrates a very narrow view of who the “public” is and what “safety” entails.
Ending Suspicion as a Service
Users of apps like Citizen, Nextdoor, and Neighbors should be vigilant about unverified claims that could get people hurt, and be careful not to feed the fertile ground for destructive hoaxes.
These apps are part of the larger landscape that law professor Elizabeth Joh calls “networked surveillance ecosystems.” The lawlessness that governs private surveillance networks like Amazon Ring and other home surveillance systems—in conjunction with social networking and vigilante apps—is only exacerbating age-old problems. This is one ecosystem that should be much better contained.