App with controversial background launches in Phoenix

Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

A recently launched app in Phoenix that aims to give residents the same information 911 dispatchers have and more has a controversial past and unclear intentions. 

Developers of the app Citizen recently announced that they are expanding its coverage to Phoenix, making it one of six metropolitan areas the app services, including Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. 

The Citizen app actually launched unsuccessfully several years ago under a different name. In 2016, it was known as Vigilante, and was immediately controversial for encouraging users to intercede if they saw a crime being committed. 

After being only live for a week in 2016 in New York, the app was removed from the Apple App Store. 

Unlike its predecessor, Citizen encourages users not to approach crimes. 

In a blog post for their re-launch as Citizen, development company sp0n made note of this. 

“But the name Vigilante also created a distraction for some people,” the post said, adding that the removal from the App store was “a good thing” that allowed them to make changes. 

“Our mission has always been to build safer communities through transparency,” the post continues.

The app, which has raised $40 million from venture capital firms and celebrities like Drake and LeBron James, according to Forbes, reports on any information that is reported to 911 in your area and puts it on the app. 

The app does vet some of the 911 calls, only putting the ones deemed a threat to public safety on the map. 

Citizen has spoken with the police and fire departments in Phoenix, as well as with Mayor Kate Gallego’s office, to make them aware of the app, a spokesperson for Citizen told the Arizona Mirror. However, a spokeswoman for Gallego said Citizen has not contacted the mayor.

The spokesperson added that the app has people monitoring it 24/7 and that any reports that are “unconfirmed” are reported as such in the app. 

When the Mirror downloaded the app, the majority of the alerts were for things such as car crashes or alley fires. However, alerts for events like a fist fight at a Dollar Tree and a woman punched at an In-N-Out Burger were also visible. 

The app also enables users to live stream events and upload pictures of events that are in progress. 

Despite its large number of financial backers, the company claimed to Forbes it has no revenue. 

Andrew Frame, founder of Citizen, has said the developers don’t intend to make money off ads or sell user data. However, the app’s terms of service tells a different story. 

“The services may include advertisements, which may be targeted to the content, your location, your use of the services, information regarding the services, queries made through the services, or other information,” Citizen’s terms of service agreement states on its website. 

When signing up for the app, users agree to the terms of service, which also state that “third-party providers and partners may place such advertising on the services or in connection with the display of content or information from the services, whether submitted by you or others.” 

When asked about this part of the terms of service, a spokesperson for the app stated they have “no plans to serve advertisements.”

The terms of service also indicated another way sp0n may try to make revenue off the app down the road: Users of the app must agree that any content submitted, such as any photos or videos of incidents, are the property of sp0n. 

In fact, Citizen often will re-publish user generated photos and videos to its own social media networks. In a report by BuzzFeed News, the sp0n declined to comment on how it chooses which incidents to promote. 

The terms of service also state that sp0n “reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any content or other information as we reasonably believe is necessary” to comply with governmental requests, enforce the terms and conditions, prevent fraud, respond to support requests or to “protect the rights, property or safety of sp0n, its users and the public.” 

As Citizen prepares to roll out into more cities, Frame has told other media outlets that user-reporting abilities will be downplayed more in future updates. 

Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund provided $3 million in seed funding to the app. Thiel is famous for co-founding PayPal as well as Palantir Technologies, a $20 billion big-data analytics company that has been shrouded in secrecy since it launched in 2004. Thiel also famously was behind the eventual demise of the publication Gawker.

***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include a comment from Mayor Kate Gallego’s office.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here