The App That Sparked a Manhunt

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S1: A quick warning before we get started, this episode contains some adult language, if you’re listening with kids, you might want to skip this one. Hey, Amy, how are you doing? I’m good, how are you? I’m good. Thanks for taking a minute to last year. I was renting a room in Chicago. My landlord, whose voice you just heard was Amy. The apartment we lived in was on this beautiful tree lined street.

S2: It’s just so peaceful and calm and quiet and full of beautiful trees and families. And you can sleep with the windows open. It’s a very beautiful community.

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S1: But since I arrived there, Amy’s attitude towards this area has changed a little bit because of an app she had downloaded called Citizen, but fed her every detail of what was going wrong in the neighborhood.

S2: It turned out like one block from my front door. People are being robbed. People are being attacked, women are being assaulted. And there were places I would walk to that I just stopped walking to, like, walking to the lake alone. I would never do that. Now, I started parking closer to work. Really, if I need a friend for dinner in the neighborhood, kind of scared about walking home, I changed things a lot. I used to just walk around carefree, not scared or worried. But then as soon as I started looking at that app, I was I was scared to death.

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S1: Citizen Combine’s reports from police scanners with user submissions to create an interactive map of all the shifty things happening around you

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S2: all the time. It’s a map and there’s little signs on the map and you click on it and it tells you what’s happening. A fire or people at the Armitage Brown line with guns or whatever it might be. It’ll tell you everything that’s gone on for the last couple of days.

S1: It really changed the way she thought about her neighborhood

S2: at the end when I was on it. I mean, there were a lot of carjackings going on, so I was even nervous in my car. I would purposefully not drive close to the current front of me so that I could always get around it because people were getting kind of barricaded in between two cars and then getting carjacked. It just made me really nervous.

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S1: At one point, Amy’s daughter and I told her, you’ve got to delete this thing because this part of Chicago where she lives, Edgewater, it’s a safe neighborhood and not just by big city standards or by Chicago standards. Sixty thousand people live in Edgewater and it averages less than one homicide a year. Our intervention didn’t work, but just a few months ago, after I’d left, Amy did give up using citizen and she told me, I’m a nurse in a pandemic, I don’t need any more anxiety. And slowly, her fear of what was happening around her began to ease. And in the two months since you stopped looking at it, have you been confronted by any hatchet wielding maniacs or mortgage on the way to the beach?

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S2: None. None.

S1: Today on the show, we talk to motherboards. Joseph talks about Citizen, an app that his reporting shows is designed to do exactly what it did for Amy, not just make people aware of what’s going on around them, but make them afraid. And what makes it all the more worrisome is what Citizen is telling you may not always be true. That and more after the break. I’m Henry Gruber, in for Lizzie O’Leary. Stick around.

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S3: Breaking tonight at 11:00, the Palisades fire explodes, forcing mandatory evacuations.

S1: The blaze on May 14th. A brush fire broke out on the west side of Los Angeles with most of California suffering a severe drought. It was a frighteningly early harbinger of the fire season to come. I’ll let Joseph Parke’s, a reporter for Vises motherboard, tell you how citizen comes into this story.

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S4: So citizens started doing what he normally does, which is no informant’s user base of ongoing events. But the information made its way into citizen about the identity of a particular person, that citizen and suspected of starting the fire. This was, I believe, a person currently experiencing homelessness in the city. And Citizen published this person’s name, their photo, and put a bounty essentially on this person’s head. Any citizen user that could contribute information that would lead to this person’s arrest would get 10K and then eventually 20 and then eventually thousand dollars by the end of the night.

S1: And all this is happening on this livestream, right? So it’s like in addition to the normal interface of the citizen app, they have this almost like a TV channel that pops up for users, right?

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S4: Yeah. So Citizen has this relatively new product called On Air and as you say, is basically like a pseudo cable TV show where they have a host or two little circles on the screen and they’ll be talking and discussing the incident and reading any information that may be coming to them. They’ll also be interviews with people on the ground who are at the scene. So during this entire time, during this, you know, self created manhunt for this person experiencing homelessness, you’re right there broadcasting this not just in push alert, but essentially as a reality TV show in a way to that end users, which includes something like 800000 people in Los Angeles, would have got push alerts for this event, 800000 people. Yes, that would have been how many people saw the push alerts, I believe in Los Angeles, it was over 800000 people.

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S1: Just to put that in perspective, that would be a push alert to one in every five people living in the city of Los Angeles offering a bounty of 30000 dollars to bring in a homeless man. If you click through to watch that live stream, which Josef’s editor, Jason Kobler did, you would have seen a virtual wanted poster host issuing constant reminders about an escalating bounty. At one point, according to Motherboard Prints Map, the apps head of community told viewers, quote, We need you to help us contact him and identify where he is. We need the scent of his clothing. This wasn’t just a TV performance, Cox got access to Internal Slack’s and other documents that showed how the company’s CEO, software developer and entrepreneur named Andrew Frame was thinking about the manhunt.

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S4: But as we found out from the leaks, as this wasn’t just sort of the hosts going out live and just improvising, they were being directed sometimes by other citizen employees saying, you know, mentioned the bounty again, mentioned the bounty again, but also sometimes by Andrew Frame, the CEO himself, talking about how we need to find this person. This is a an evil person. And they should just clarify before we continue. This person who is experiencing homelessness, who was targeted with the bounty, was the wrong guy. He was not the person who was eventually arrested with suspicion of starting the wildfire. So this entire time, this entire evening of Andrew Frame getting increasingly agitated, the hunting down this person, it was the wrong person alone.

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S1: Do you have him on hand? Can you read me some of the things that the CEO wrote in the company’s lack while this was happening?

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S4: I mean, he says, find this fuck. Let’s get this guy before midnight. He’s going down. Breaking news. This guy is a devil. Get him by midnight. We hate this guy. Get him. He explicitly at one point says this will be good for our metrics if we go and find an evil person every day, this is going to be better for our user base. And that was the the killer quote for me. The explicit admission that this was, at least in part to increase the user base is I mean, it exposes sexism for what it is, which it is simultaneously trying to present itself as a public service, you know, to help people. But it’s also at the whims and the pushes and pulls of any other tech startup, which is, you know, generating revenue, which my understanding is they’re not particularly good at that right now and increasing their user base, just like, you know, Twitter or Facebook or anything else, except in this case, they’re on the ground encouraging the hunting of people explicitly.

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S1: Right. It’s it’s like if cops were broadcast live and the people in the show weren’t actually cops.

S4: Right. And I guess I should just clarify that much. If not most of citizen’s information does come from police scanners. You know, they hire people in the US and also potentially in Nepal and in Kenya, as our reporting shows, who are listening to police scanners and, you know, just typing them up, summarizing them and sending out the push alerts. So a lot of the information does come from the public police radios that you can access. But of course, that qualitatively becomes something else when you are broadcasting it and as you say to a huge chunk of Los Angeles and also explicitly linking a bounty to, you know, that is going further in in some ways than, you know, just listening to what the police are doing

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S1: in this instance. Users did not find citizens wanted man. The next day, the LAPD arrested and charged a different man for starting the twelve hundred acre fire. Citizen apologized. This was a mistake we are taking very seriously, the company said. Still, motherboard reporter Joseph Cox says this kind of user led hunt for justice has been citizens plan all along.

S4: So in 2016, I believe initially the app launched as Vigilante, which is a much more explicit name, including with its, you know, its goals. Its adver was a woman is walking down the street in New York

S1: with

S4: a strange, suspicious man, follows her around with a push alert, goes out to all of these people around New York, and then the good citizens of the various boroughs come and save the woman. And that is the goal of the effort to bring communities together to fight crime. Apple, as in the iPhone manufacturer, did not appreciate that, and it found it violated the app stores terms of service and they removed the app briefly. Citizen then comes back about a year later and launches with its new name, as we know it is now, citizens.

S1: You guys got this data showing how many things are being reported through this app and whether they’re coming from the police scanner or from user. Submissions are looking at 500000 incidents every week in New York City, 250000 L.A., 100000 in Chicago. I mean, it sounds like using this app, you must just be blanketed with notifications.

S4: Yeah, I mean, the first time I heard about this was when one of my friends, they actually use it and they do receive these notifications and their phone would keep going off. So what’s up? You need to, you know, text me back or something. No, it’s the citizen that going on and on and on about what is happening in X, Y, Z.

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S1: How do all these alerts make their way into the app? Right. Like there’s a police scanner, there’s user submissions. How do they make sure that what’s going into the app is verified, trustworthy? That we’re not just you know, we’ve seen with social networks that are focused on neighborhood safety how they can become a breeding ground for a kind of racist paranoia about who is walking through the neighborhood at a given time. What did Citizen do to avoid that and to make sure that doing something as delicate as corralling all this public safety information, they were protecting people who might get caught up in it.

S4: When it comes to the end of the day, citizen does just publish a lot of stuff and sometimes it does turn out to be false. I mean, often this can happen with shootings. You know, on the police scanner, they could say shots fired, they turn up and that wasn’t the case. Maybe it was a car backfiring or anything else or one report. It was, you know, reports a woman was shot, a citizen user turned up. There was no evidence that actually happened. And there was potentially something something else as well. So they’re kind of stuck in that. They’re heavily relying on the police scanner audio, but they don’t necessarily verify that at the time. You know, they’re just reporting what the police are saying. But in the age of social media, that’s not really an excuse. You know, it’s intellectually lazy if we just published as media outlets. Well, it’s just what the cop said. Well, we’ve seen what happens when you believe the police narrative. Right. So. Right.

S1: And you’re not even talking about it’s not even believing the police. Right. You’re talking about them running basically an entire story based on an initial something they heard on the police scanner without even you know, at least as local reporters, if you ran the crime blotter, you would at least follow up with the precinct and say, you know what came of that? Did a woman really get shot last night on the corner?

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S4: But exactly. They’re not doing it seems much reporting at all. And we’re at least with some of the outsourcing to cloud factory, which is this sort of, you know, labor shop, which has workers in the power. And Kenya. These are people who are seemingly very far away from what is actually going on, trying to cover hyper local incidents. This isn’t even local news. It’s hyper local news. You know, this is stuff that happened on your street corner, well, maybe a couple of blocks away. And potentially workers overseas don’t have the necessary context to interpret the police scanners like that. There is also apparently some cases at least former employees told me of the cloud factory workers, including information that would ordinarily be cut out, such as when there is a domestic violence situation, citizens internal policies, as they were described to me, is that we don’t they don’t publish the specific address where that’s happening. They’ll say a street or corner or something like that. It’s some attempt of anonymization there. But sometimes those slipped through the cracks as well. And because the cloud factory workers are inputting this information directly into the app and pushing out the other citizen workers don’t have to come and correct it once is already life. So there isn’t some sort of editorial process beforehand. It unfortunately seems to happen only after the fact.

S1: When we come back, the manhunt isn’t the only way that citizen is trying to get off your phone and into the real world. What we saw in L.A. the other week, it it strikes me it looks more like the original iteration of the app, the one that got banned from the App Store Vigilante. And some of your reporting indicates that while Vigilante may have been banned from the App Store in the app, changed its name to the sort of impeccably titled Citizen, that the actual mission didn’t change that much. And they still saw the long term goal as being about users fighting crime.

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S4: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think the goal has necessarily changed. It has just been sort of how they present it and then moves into covid contact tracing and that sort of thing. Bolster that. But when you have the CEO just screaming and the chance to capture somebody who turned out not to even be related to this incident at all, I mean, it’s highly it’s highly concerning. Right. And it does as you say, it just shows that, you know, this is ultimately a app driven vigilante force, I think is how we phrased it. And I don’t like to exaggerate in my coverage. And I will tell you, I’m always the one who is trying to hedge or trying to water something down because I just want to be absolutely 100 percent fair. But that is what we call the million dollar. A hundred percent agree with that. This is an app driven vigilante force.

S1: Part of what you’ve found also in Los Angeles in recent days is that this is part of a strategy not just to make people paranoid and to make them tune in and to generate incredible clips of locals trying to apprehend suspects on their own, which is sort of what we see in the original ad for Vigilante, but also that this is this is a business model predicated on basically marketing private security.

S4: Yes. So, I mean, this is how I originally got much more interested in citizen, because a couple of weeks ago, a Twitter user posted a photo of a black tinted Windows vehicle with the citizen logo branded across it. And clearly, this was citizen reaching out into the physical world in the way like they were. They were no longer just going up and transcribing information. They were having some sort of presence in the physical world driving around Los Angeles. Yes, they are testing a OnDemand private security force citizens. And the one that provides, you know, the the workers themselves they’re planning to partner with one was called Los Angeles Professional Security and the Securitas. So you would get the idea at least as you would use the app, you would say, I need help and a car would come up to you and then, you know, deal with whatever problem you had. And it just seems like this is a company is desperate for monetization in the way that’s even going to not only do these truly insane bounty stunts, but also step into the physical world with its private security as well.

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S1: It sounds like citizen is trying to circumvent the role of the actual police, not to mention perhaps even the justice system. I mean, they are they’re putting out alerts. They’re putting essentially out a digital wanted poster for a guy on their own accord on the one hand and then on the other. They’re also trying to be the people you call basically when you feel like you might be in danger, that they can show up and maybe provide a faster and more efficient service than the police. Or at least I imagine that’s that’s the pitch to users.

S4: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in the internal documents we got as well, they mentioned that the Los Angeles Police Department, when told about this private security, Hedstrom citizen, allegedly called it a game changer. The documents didn’t name, you know, who specifically said that. And the LAPD hasn’t given any substantial answer to that. But there is a sort of friction there in that, at least in the LAPD is there was a lot of property crime going on in L.A. and they simply can’t get they can’t get their officers to the location in time. So citizen could potentially fill that hole. But of course, that is a conversation that probably shouldn’t be happening in secret is one that should probably be happening in public. So the citizens of Los Angeles can decide whether they want to call private security force turning up for random crimes.

S1: Right. And it makes you wonder, too, what was the end game of the manhunt on Friday night for for the man suspected of starting the fire? I mean, what was going to happen if someone after that 30 thousand dollar bounty found him?

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S4: Yeah, and I think that is one of the main takeaways from here, is that we were probably just lucky that nothing more substantial happened. I mean, something did happen and this man had a bounty on his head. And, you know, all these push notifications went out, but nobody, as far as we know, found him or harassed him or potentially even worse, you know, so I don’t know if a citizen is going to put another bounty on someone’s head. They have publicly apologized for this and indicated that they won’t. But the family even did this in the first place shows that this is a company that is just willing to push the boundaries of what this sort of vigilante force, an app is capable of.

S1: Let me ask you one more thing, when this app initially debuted as vigilante and at moment since law enforcement has expressed some hesitancy about the about the company encouraging people to go out there and make citizen’s arrests, go after people approach crime scenes and so on. But at the same time, we’ve also seen citizens get into some pretty high level collaborations with local governments who have come to see them as I don’t want to say a trusted partner, but a partner. And I’m wondering what you think the fallout of this is both within the company and maybe with some of the company’s external partners,

S4: you know, so immediately after the bounty incident, I believe it was a public affairs official from one of the L.A. agencies said that this could be potentially disastrous for citizens. You know, obviously putting the bounty on the wrong person’s head. So, of course, there’s going to be maybe not a severing, but certainly a blow to sort of the relationship there in L.A. But L.A. has been something of the epicenter for cities. And when it comes to partnerships, they do seem to have some sort of working relationship with the LAPD. So there is a relationship there and potentially they want to mimic that across the country as well. I don’t know where citizens are going to go from here as they going to try to partner with more police forces. Is there anything fruitful for them there? But ultimately, I feel like they’re going to come back to the same question. Is there is this going to generate revenue for us? Is this going to generate profits for us? And if not, why don’t we just do something more radical again, like putting a bounty on someone’s head or putting undercover street teams? You know, I just don’t know if their product is going to actually be that beneficial for the police and whether the police would, you know, give any sort of financial incentive to citizens as well. So it remains to be seen sort of what their relationship is going to be.

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S1: Joseph, thank you so much for coming on and talking with us. Thank you. I appreciate it. Joseph Cock’s covers hackers crime and privacy for Vice. That’s our show today, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks this week, were edited by Tori Bosch and Alicia Montgomery, DVDs, part of the larger What Next family TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. If you miss the episode of What’s Next on the Death of the Capital Riot Commission, go back and check it out. Barry Harris will be back Monday to host regular What Next? And Lizzie O’Leary will be back here next Friday. I’m Henry Goodbar. Thanks for listening.