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The Complicated Power Dynamics of Crime-Tracking Apps

An app that wants to make the world safer by allowing people to livestream crimes raises a number of questions

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon this June, I sat on a picnic blanket drinking iced tea in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. Then my husband received a push notification on his phone. "There’s a woman being assaulted 1,030 feet away from here," he said. We put down the iced tea.

The alarming notification came from an app called Citizen, which pings its users when a suspected crime is reported nearby and allows users within a geo-gated perimeter (within a quarter mile of the incident) to livestream what they see. It is a gritty twist on Facebook Live, one in which the livestreaming function is exclusively for the documentation of misdeeds. The goal of the app is ostensibly to reduce criminal activity by creating a community of self-policing documentarians who use their phones to record crime. The reality is more complicated.

Since we were close to this reported assault, Citizen prompted us to begin filming it. We looked at each other, unsure of what to do. The park resembled a dream, not a crime scene. Golden retrievers and teensy congested French bulldogs sniffed the grass as toddlers scuttled around, while their parents discreetly tipped rosé into biodegradable cups. According to the New York Police Department’s native crime map, the park sits in one of the safest neighborhoods in New York City, with fewer than 1.19 crimes per 1,000 residents in May. There was no assault in sight, and all looked idyllic. Yet the app showed us that one had been reported just a block away. (Citizen does not allow its users to report crimes themselves; its reported incidents start as 911 calls, which means in most cases the police are already on their way.)

While we debated whether we should try to find the conflict, Citizen updated itself to note that police had arrived. I still felt queasy with guilt. Law enforcement’s arrival didn’t necessarily mean the scene was secure. At all. The sad, stark truth is that sometimes calling the police can create dangerous situations rather than deescalate them. Black people are more likely than white people to die during police interactions, and law enforcement has come under intense scrutiny for how it approaches people with mental illness. (Think of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant black woman with mental health issues who was shot and killed by police this month after calling 911 to report a burglary.) I didn’t have enough information about what was happening to feel confident that the NYPD’s arrival meant this victim was safe. I didn’t know whether the victim even existed, or whether it had been a false alarm.

(Screenshot/Citizen)
(Screenshot/Citizen)

When Citizen isn’t making me feel frightened, the app, which is currently available only in New York, makes me feel guilt-stricken. Despite my neighborhood’s low crime rate, all sorts of reported menace popped up on Citizen’s map of my area, from "Man Touching Himself, Recording Kids" (1 mile away) to "Woman With Baby Being Attacked by Man" (0.9 miles away). "Assault in Progress" crimes popped up repeatedly, and there were more unusual and specific incidents reported, like "Man Hitting Rabbi With Baseball Bat" (6.3 miles), "Man Stealing Large Amounts of Ice Cream in Store" (9.2 miles), and "Crazy Squirrel on Eighth Floor" (0.7 miles).

I received two alerts in the middle of the night this week, one informing me that my neighbors were getting robbed (360 feet), and the next informing me that a man down the block was being attacked (1,010 feet). With jarring frequency, the app has notified me of a crime close enough to film while I was inside my bedroom, often lying in my bed. Citizen explicitly warns its users not to seek out the crime scenes that it encourages us to record. While this is certainly the smart thing to do from a liability standpoint, the app’s warnings seem to contradict its purpose of rousing citizens to document crimes. "Never approach a crime scene," the app tells users within the same notification alerting them to a crime and reminding them that they can record it. Despite its warnings, Citizen’s user interface clearly still nudges people to participate through documentation.

In its original version, Citizen was far more reckless with its call to action. When it was released in October, the app was called Vigilante, and in its first advertisement it imagined a scenario in which the app mobilized people to stop a man from assaulting a woman by swarming him.

Two days after Vigilante’s original public launch, Apple yanked the app. The issue was obvious: Vigilante encouraged its users to act as — big surprise — vigilantes. Its parent company, Sp0n, revamped the app and rereleased it in March with its new, less incendiary name and key modifications to its interface. Users can no longer "report" an incident through the app, which means the only crimes that appear on the map are reports that have gone through 911. That’s a positive shift, although some changes seem to be primarily focused on how the app is marketed rather than how it functions, as The Outline pointed out. After all, it still asks its users to act as crime documentarians and alerts them to incidents in their vicinities — and while this is undoubtedly distinct from encouraging people to physically interfere in an emergency scenario, the app still cultivates participation.

Since the app is trying to disassociate itself from vigilantism, I asked its maker if users now get banned for interfering with crimes. "If they violate the Terms of Service, they will be subject to being banned," a spokesperson told me via email. The terms of service state: "You are under no obligation to travel to or remain in any area during, before, or after a crime or other hazardous situation." Yet with Citizen alerting me to crimes right outside my window, according to the TOS, I should be banned from using the app simply for sitting in my room. The TOS is so sweeping that it could apply to anyone using the app, as the app prompts people to "safely" livestream crimes close to them — in other words, it appears there is no way to use the app in its livestreaming capacity without violating its terms of service.

In its original form, Vigilante was a flagrantly dangerous app. However, the revamp has merely rendered Citizen less dangerous than its predecessor, which is different from safe. Despite its obligatory pop-up warnings and sweeping terms of service, the app’s interface still beckons people to get the best view of crimes.

When I asked Citizen if it had an example of how the app can best be used, its spokesperson regaled me with the following anecdote:

This "best-case scenario" involves somebody physically interfering with a crime. It’s obviously a scenario where it was a moral good to do so, and it’s a compelling example for why this app should exist. But it’s also contradictory to the app’s warnings not to interfere.

(Screenshot/Citizen)
(Screenshot/Citizen)

Citizen is not the only app with a focus on pinpointing and documenting crime and misdeeds. There are myriad crime-mapping apps, including

the bluntly named CrimeMapping, which relies on data from different police departments around the U.S. There’s no NYPD data on the app, so I couldn’t scout local crimes in the same way I did on Citizen (although I did learn that Calabasas appears to have a larceny problem). Most of them, including CrimeMapping, do not offer the option to livestream local crimes. An app called Parachute (which was formerly known as Witness) allows people to livestream emergencies, including crimes, as they happen to them, and it shares location with a list of emergency contacts, so it’s essentially a version of Citizen for victims rather than bystanders. Meanwhile, the ACLU has a specialized app called Mobile Justice to record police misconduct.

In addition to these niche apps, there is also Facebook Live and its ilk. With the introduction of Live and the growth in popularity of other livestreaming apps like Periscope, there has also been a sharp rise in livestreamed crime. According to BuzzFeed News, Facebook Live has broadcast at least 45 serious crimes, including rapes and homicides, since December 2015. Facebook did not adequately prepare for Live to be a platform for documenting violence and crime. Twitch, Periscope, YouTube, and other livestreaming companies have also struggled to moderate this darker use case, at times facing criticism for leaving violent footage up, and at others for appearing to take it down. In one notable and horrific instance, a woman named Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to document the aftermath of a police officer shooting her boyfriend Philando Castile after a routine traffic stop (Castile died soon after). While Reynolds’s citizen journalism was not able to sway a jury to convict the police officer of a crime, it did provide a vital historical record of injustice. And while these livestreaming services clearly have a serious problem in their inability to effectively moderate broadcasts of people who film themselves committing crimes, they also offer a valuable channel for people to document abuses of power. It is entirely possible that footage created within the Citizen app could be used as evidence to bring criminals to justice, including police acting criminally.

A Sp0n spokesperson told me about the criteria used to populate crimes within the app. "[It’s] continually evolving, but calls such as suspicious people, bags, etc. are not displayed on the app unless there is an imminent threat to the public (i.e. suspicious person with a weapon)." I asked the company for more information about this. It responded that all the instances start as 911 calls. When I asked how the app verifies some of its users, a spokesperson responded: "Users must verify their phone numbers by confirming an SMS code during the registration process." For an app that champions transparency as an antidote to crime, its methods are startlingly opaque.

"A 911 call means a crime is allegedly taking place. But as has been proven far too often, these calls are often made about people of color who aren’t committing any wrongdoing, and they all too easily result in death," Dia Kayyali, senior program coordinator for the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Witness, told me via email. "The app reinforces that suspicion itself is enough to warrant public amplification."

For many potential Citizen users, the act of being present and documenting a crime scene with a camera is still wrought with danger, even if they aren’t the ones calling 911. Witness (which has no affiliation with the aforementioned app of the same name) focuses on the documentation of human rights abuses, offers training sessions to help people safely film the abuses they encounter. It emphatically does not recommend Citizen. "As both an attorney and a specialist in digital security and civic witnessing, I still find this app incredibly disturbing. Witness educates people on how to film safely, ethically, and effectively. This app is none of those things, and it encourages a mindset of suspicion and guilt," Kayyali told me.

Citizen reminded Kayyali of the United Airlines passenger David Dao, who was infamously pulled off a plane earlier this year. "I wrote an article after the video of him getting dragged off a United flight where I said: ‘Dr. Dao’s privacy is in shambles. In some cases, the consequences can be even more severe. In fact, as we’ve pointed out, some perpetrators of hate crimes use "online video distribution as a threat." Exposing the identities of survivors of violence can lead to them being targeted for further violence, by the government or other parties. Videos that document abuse, can simultaneously inflict it.’"

I noticed that many of the incidents that showed up on my map were assaults of women by men. I do not know if a women getting attacked would necessarily want a stranger to come up and start broadcasting the incident on a public app, but it seems obvious that the victim’s privacy should be strongly considered before hitting "Record." Yet Citizen does not touch on how thorny and important privacy is while livestreaming vulnerable subjects without their permission.

Of course, merely following my phone to a crime and hitting "Record" wouldn’t necessarily stop the violence. Dao’s incident was also heavily documented via phone. "Instead of intervening in the assault, the passengers stoically took out their cameraphones and pointed them toward David Dao, whose body was dragged along the aisle of the airplane, glasses askew, face bloody, and belly exposed. Their immediate response was not to speak out against the outrageousness of what was going on, but to create an instant digital record of the incident," Quartz’s Keshia Naurana Badalge wrote, calling the Dao incident a "modern manifestation of the bystander effect."

(Screenshot/Citizen)
(Screenshot/Citizen)

The bystander effect traces its origins to the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, in Queens. The legend, spurred by The New York Times’ reporting, is that up to 38 witnesses chose to look the other way as her rapist and murderer attacked her. Although later investigations cast doubt on the original account, Genovese’s death and the rumored apathy of its neighborhood witnesses spawned the sociological theory known as the bystander effect. It’s the idea that people are less likely to help a victim if other people are present, basically because they decide that if other people have chosen to remain inactive, they should too — or that perhaps they don’t need to act, because someone else will. I am not the only person to draw a connection between livestreamed crime and the Genovese case. "In the age of social media and instant communication, the potential rises for a Kitty Genovese syndrome on steroids," a New York Times Retro Report stated. "On Dec. 31, the authorities [in Chicago] say, four young people kidnapped and tortured a mentally disabled teenager, streaming their brutality on Facebook Live. One assailant was so devoid of empathy for the victim that she whined on camera about not having much of a digital audience: ‘Ain’t nobody watching.’"

In modern reexaminations of the Genovese case, a potential reason why one of her neighbors did not immediately call the police became more apparent, and it wasn’t cruel bystander apathy. Her friend Karl Ross witnessed the attack and stayed silent, noting that he did not want to "get involved." Ross was thought to be a closeted gay man, and at the time of the Genovese murder, homosexuality was illegal in New York City. Thus, calling the police was a fraught prospect, and while allowing Genovese to die rather than face persecution and potential violence himself was not brave, his inaction was also likely not motivated by indifference but fear.

As I have continued to receive crime alerts from Citizen, I keep wondering if I am letting a modern-day Kitty Genovese suffer as I hesitate to follow my phone to a red dot marking a reported ongoing crime. The app engenders a sense of responsibility through its alerts and calls to document, one that is hard to shake off, even as it remains obvious that inserting yourself into potentially dangerous situations is foolhardy. For all its failings, Citizen succeeds at summoning a basic question: What does it mean to be a good neighbor? Unfortunately, the app complicates that question without providing an answer.