In May 2021, crime tracking and neighbourhood watch app Citizen offered users a bounty of $30,000 to track down an arsonist on live video. “Find this fuck,” CEO Andrew Frame wrote in a Slack thread along with a picture of the man which was livestreamed on the app. In the hours that followed, however, the app discovered that they’d sent a mob of civilians after the wrong suspect. Two months later, the same app is now hiring New Yorkers to broadcast crime scenes and other public emergencies as regular bystanders.
Dubbed as “the most powerful safety app for today’s world,” Citizen monitors 911 communications to provide real-time safety alerts, updates on natural disasters and lets users both broadcast and watch live videos of incidents happening near them. According to its description on Google Play, the app’s notifications have previously “urged people to evacuate burning buildings, deterred school buses from nearby terrorist attacks and have even led to a rescue of a 1-year-old from a stolen car.”
“Citizen may notify you of a crime in progress before the police have responded,” the description continues. “It’s meant to protect you and your community—please use it responsibly.”
In June 2021, the Daily Dot spotted a man named Landon who happened to livestream from multiple crime scenes in one day. Landon was written off as a mere coincidence until the Daily Dot discovered six additional videos of the user broadcasting from other public emergencies. He seemed more than just a concerned citizen at this point. One month later, the New York Post reported a user named Chris who biked around the Bronx and livestreamed at least six different emergencies on the app. Citizen later confirmed that both Landon and Chris were working for the app’s ‘Street Team’.
“Citizen has teams in place in some of the cities where the app is available to demonstrate how the platform works, and to model responsible broadcasting practices in situations when events are unfolding in real time. We believe these teams will ultimately help guide our users on how to broadcast in an effective, helpful and safe way,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. The company admitted to housing Street Teams since the app’s launch. The spokesperson also added how it’s never tried to hide this fact from the public.
These jobs are however not listed on Citizen’s website. Instead, they’re posted on the career board JournalismJobs.com by a third-party recruiter called Flyover Entertainment without any mentions of Citizen. The now-deleted job posting seeked “field team members” to work for an unnamed “tech company with user-generated content.”
“You will be live-streaming from your phone straight to the app, covering the event as news,” the listing continued, adding how field members would be “dispatched” to cover events, including dogs locked in cars and house fires. “You’ll report what you see. In the event that witnesses, police officials or other parties to interview are available, you must take the initiative to interview them for app viewers.”
The listing quoted $250 per day for ten-hour shifts in Los Angeles and $200 per day for eight-hour shifts in New York. “Other top 10 markets will be added soon,” the listing added. Applicants were further asked to submit a short 90-120 second video, “simulating coverage of such an event.” “In LA, you will also find your own driver. Once approved by the hiring company, your driver is paid $175 per day plus mileage (.56 cents per mile) by the app.”
However, TechCrunch found an NYU Journalism website that shared a similar listing and included the company’s name. Citizen confirmed to TechCrunch that both—the unnamed and named—listings were for the app’s Street Team.
“Broadcast journalists have experience in broadcasting safely and responsibly. This is a requisite for our Street Team members,” the spokesperson said. When asked why these jobs were posted on third-party job boards and not on Citizen’s own website, the spokesperson explained that it was because Citizen specifically wanted to find journalists. “However, it could presumably also find journalists on its own website,” TechCrunch noted.
Apart from the $30,000 ‘accidental’ bounty raking in 1.4 million views, Citizen has had several issues in the past with unconfirmed crime alerts in neighborhoods. In 2018, the app reported a tiger loose in Manhattan which turned out to be a raccoon. In 2019, New York City Councilman Justin Brannan slammed the app in a BuzzFeed News op-ed, accusing Citizen of “scaring the hell out of people” for sending out alerts based on 911 calls without corroboration. Earlier this year, the company started testing “on-demand” security vehicles in Los Angeles as a solution to public safety.
The app was also kicked off the App Store one week after its launch in 2016 for violating a clause in Apple’s App Developer Review Guidelines that an app shouldn’t be “likely to cause physical harm from its use.” A year later, however, the app rebranded itself as Citizen, added disclaimers that no one should interfere with a crime scene and reentered the App Store—currently encouraging untrained civilians to engage in mob justice with paid incentives as a disastrous substitute for local journalism.