“We have been exploring ways to get the community more involved in helping bring awareness to different neighborhoods and help others stay safe,” Mr. Donald said. “We are moving slowly and thoughtfully to ensure we get it right.”
Citizen is just one of a growing number of app-based options for making yourself either more aware of your surroundings or just extremely paranoid. (Or both.) Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social media app, has long seen its communities become obsessed with crime and the real and imagined threat thereof. It has struggled for years with racial profiling by its users. Ring, the controversial Amazon-owned internet-connected doorbell company, lets users upload videos recorded by their devices to a neighborhood feed, which is supplemented by Citizen-style crime reports.
Nextdoor is a wide-ranging social network, and Ring sells hardware that put a camera on your house. What Citizen says it offers to users is awareness and safety: “Citizen is empowering everyday people to participate in their own safety,” said a spokesman for the company in a statement. The company shared recent stories that emphasized how information in the app could be actionable for users. A Citizen user helped find an abducted boy in Manhattan after the app sent out an alert. Last year, Dan Humphry, a law student at Fordham, was notified by the app of a fire in his own apartment building. “It was about 3 or 4 in the morning, and I wake up, smelling smoke,” he said. “I look at my phone and there’s an alert.”
“Users write to us every day telling us how Citizen is changing how they engage with their neighborhoods,” the company says in its publicity materials. But this is believable in multiple potentially conflicting ways. Apps with maps are among the most powerful on our phones. They show us our world from space and offer at least an illusion of control and omniscience. Filling one with reports of possible crimes and danger, instead of restaurants or friends, is potent. In Citizen chats, some users earnestly wonder what’s happening, and if everyone at a scene is ok. Others simply gawk, demanding a better angle from a streamer, or making guesses at what happened. There’s a lot about decline, and about “bad neighborhoods.” This specific type of awareness can inform. It can also be alienating. Most commenters ignore the open bigots and trolls. But they show up where and when you might expect them, to offer their take on the crime unfolding down the street.
What Citizen wants from its users is less clear. There are no ads, and there is no way to pay for the app. “The company is exclusively focused on growing the safety networking over the next significant period of time,” the company says. Citizen asks its users for full access to their phones’ location data, which is a potentially lucrative resource on its own. It also asks users for access to contacts. But, the company says, “Citizen does not advertise or sell user data.”
There are, however, hints that the company may see a role for itself on the inside of the emergency response infrastructure.
When the app launched in Los Angeles, the company published a conventional announcement: “Citizen Comes to Protect the City of Angels.” It also published a call for users around Greater Los Angeles to contact their police chiefs, fire chiefs and mayors, asking them to grant Citizen access to their radios, which, as is increasingly popular across the country, encrypt communications. That means that in pockets around Los Angeles, Citizen’s operators can’t listen in, and semiprivate, functional emergency communication remains just that, away from the gaze of the anxious public. “Citizen has no formal relationships with any municipalities,” Mr. Donald said. He did say that the company would “welcome that conversation.”