Citizen ‘Protect’ sells safety everywhere you go for $20/month


On October 26, 2020, police killed Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia, as his mom stood on the sidewalk, pleading for his life. Over the following few days, the neighborhood erupted in protest, and my telephone lit up with alerts from Citizen, a public safety app. Writers for the app monitor and transcribe police scanner chatter, which is then transformed into push notifications. There was a break-in at Ceremony Help, a housebreaking at a close-by liquor retailer, a dumpster hearth one block over, a trash hearth 900 toes away.

As native information has been decimated by funds cuts and layoffs, apps corresponding to Citizen and Nextdoor have ascended to fill the void. Citizen specifically has more and more positioned itself as a information group. “We act quick, break information, and provides folks the rapid data they should keep protected,” reads an summary on the corporate’s LinkedIn profile. Citizen often ranks increased than The New York Occasions amongst information apps within the Apple App Retailer.

In idea, the platform democratizes reporting; it permits anybody with a smartphone to publish feedback and movies to a neighborhood community. However in apply, these alerts and the neighborhood commentary connected to them usually learn like police stenography and amplify present biases. Customers are bombarded by discordant notifications of violence, devoid of significant context.


Final November, I deleted Citizen from my telephone, grossed out by the tenor of the push alerts. However in March, interested by a close-by residence hearth, I downloaded the app once more. This time, after I created an account, I used to be prompted to enroll for a brand new function, Citizen Shield. For simply $19.99 a month, a digital safety agent would monitor me every time I left my home. If I stated my chosen protected phrase, the safety agent would begin a video chat and, if needed, ship my precise location to a 911 name heart. The service promised me that assist from Citizen’s group of customers would all the time be shut at hand. “Dwell monitoring,” the advert stated, “means you by no means must stroll alone.” (At this level, it appears Citizen Shield is barely being promoted to some Citizen customers. A Citizen spokesperson informed me they had been aiming to completely launch in mid-June however that they might not remark additional right now.)

As an illustration of what the app would seem like in motion, I used to be proven a fake, promotional push alert for a misplaced canine. Greater than a thousand folks had been alerted in regards to the canine, the screenshot instructed, and 475 folks had been trying for it.

It’s not tough to think about the various methods such a system might go unsuitable, notably in a neighborhood corresponding to West Philadelphia, the place in 1985 the town’s police bombed its personal residents, members of the Black separatist group MOVE. The bombing killed almost a dozen folks and destroyed greater than 60 houses alongside two metropolis blocks. In Might of final 12 months, throughout protests over George Floyd’s homicide, Philadelphia police drove an armored car into the principally Black neighborhood and tear-gassed residents, whereas the following day, a violent mob of white males roamed Fishtown largely unimpeded. An app corresponding to Citizen Shield is geared toward my demographic: I’m a white lady, dwelling in a gentrifying neighborhood, who generally goes operating after darkish. If I felt ambiguously threatened by a fellow jogger—a Black man, for the sake of argument—and alerted my Citizen safety agent and the broader Citizen group, what would occur to him?

I signed up for a free trial of Citizen Shield to be able to take a look at out among the options. What I realized did little to encourage religion that the app would shield everybody equally.

In some ways, Citizen’s new Shield function marks a return to the corporate’s roots. Citizen started as a crime-fighting app referred to as Vigilante that launched in 2016. An ad for Vigilante reveals a lady being adopted after which assaulted underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. She calls 911, and her name is transcribed by a Vigilante operator listening in on the police scanner. An alert—”Suspicious Man Following Girl”—is acquired by a man taking part in chess, a ride-share driver, and a person working in a bodega. These three males arrive simply in time, conveniently in live performance with the police, and two of them shove a digicam within the attacker’s face simply because the perpetrator is knocking the lady to the bottom.

The New York Police Division condemned the app, which was subsequently faraway from Apple’s App Retailer. It relaunched the next 12 months as Citizen, a extra innocuous app for the skilled bystander. (In keeping with The New York Occasions, the NYPD spokesperson who condemned Vigilante now works for Citizen.)

Citizen’s new Shield service options safety brokers who, based on one latest job listing, “triage the extent of severity of every name and make applicable assessments of needed subsequent steps.” The brokers are required to “supply assist and steering in real-time to any consumer who feels unsafe.” The job {qualifications} are minimal—customer support expertise is a precedence and expertise working as a primary responder is a plus.


Citizen connects you to a safety agent name heart when you click on a button that reads “Get Assist.” The primary agent I spoke with informed me that she was in a position to monitor my precise location, tempo, telephone battery, and—presumably, had I linked my telephone to, say, an Apple Watch or Fitbit—my coronary heart price. One other safety agent, Erin, informed me that if I added emergency contacts, they’d have the ability to alert these folks if I had been ever in bother. “Let’s say you bought right into a automotive accident,” stated the safety agent, “if you requested us to contact 911 and your emergency contact contacts—even when we needed to dangle up the telephone as a result of 911 had arrived and you had been being stabilized—we might then attain out to your contact, to allow them to know what’s occurring.”

As cities face an increase in homicide charges and funds shortfalls, this Uber-for-private-security function seems like an ominous signal of what’s to come back in the course of the post-pandemic restoration. COVID-19 killed almost 600,000 folks in america over the previous 12 months, whereas the federal government put down uprisings for racial justice throughout the nation with a closely militarized police pressure. The post-pandemic panorama feels each hopeful and post-apocalyptic. What has change into clear during the last 12 months is that safety on this nation is simply an phantasm. How a lot would you be prepared to pay for that phantasm, although? To some, $19.99 a month may appear affordable.

A function corresponding to Citizen Shield strikes me as mass surveillance disguised as a public good, poised to funnel generalized concern into one thing extra nefarious. It should nearly actually result in pointless police stops and, inevitably, to police violence. It should doubtless encourage vigilantes corresponding to George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Within the wake of the 1918 pandemic and World Battle I, the U.S. moved into the Roaring ’20s, a interval characterised as a lot by debauchery and cultural improvement because it was by earnings inequality and punitive policing. The Pinkertons, a non-public detective company known for strikebreaking, and for serving as a goon squad for the rich, had been omnipresent. If we at the moment are coming into our personal Roaring ’20s, it appears a brand new sort of Pinkerton is coming with them.

Rebecca McCarthy is a contract author primarily based in Philadelphia. She’s on Twitter @reemccarthy.

This text was initially revealed on Undark. Learn the original article.