Leaked Emails Show Crime App Citizen Is Testing On-Demand Security Force

Citizen would deploy private security forces at the request of app users, according to documents and sources.

May 21 2021, 5:20pm
Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

Crime and neighborhood watch app Citizen has ambitions to deploy private security workers to the scene of disturbances at the request of app users, according to leaked internal Citizen documents and Citizen sources.

The plans mark a dramatic expansion of Citizen's purview. It is currently an app where users report "incidents" in their neighborhoods and, based on those reports and police scanner transcriptions, the app sends "real-time safety alerts" to users about crime and other incidents happening near where a user is located. It is essentially a mapping app that allows users to both report and learn about crime (or what users of the app perceive to be crime) in their neighborhood. The introduction of in-person, private security forces drastically alters the service, and potential impact, that Citizen may offer in the future, and provides more context as to why a Citizen-branded vehicle has been spotted driving around Los Angeles. The news comes after Citizen offered a $30,000 bounty against a person it falsely accused of starting a wildfire.

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"The broad master plan was to create a privatized secondary emergency response network," one former Citizen employee told Motherboard. Motherboard granted multiple sources anonymity to protect them from retaliation from the company.

"It's been something discussed for a while but I personally never expected it to make it this far," another Citizen source told Motherboard.

Do you work at Citizen? Do you have access to internal Citizen documents? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

In short, the product, described as "security response" in internal emails, would have Citizen send a car with private security forces to an app user, according to the former employee. A private security company working with Citizen would provide the response staff, the former employee added. A second Citizen source confirmed this description of the service.

Citizen has been actively testing the program, with what the company describes as quick response times and instant communication between Citizen and security partners, according to the emails.

One of those companies, according to the emails, is well-known private security contractor Securitas. The email about the tests says that Securitas average response times have improved to around 20 minutes. In one case, a guard showed up in 10 minutes to escort a Citizen employee to get coffee in Los Angeles. One of the former employees also said Securitas was involved.

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The email added that the user and agent experience needed to be improved, and that Citizen was reviewing the results with Securitas to make those improvements.

The email also names LAPS, or Los Angeles Professional Security. On Friday, Motherboard reported that Los Angeles Professional Security is linked to a Citizen-branded vehicle driving around Los Angeles. A Citizen spokesperson told Motherboard that the vehicle is part of a pilot program but declined to say exactly what that program consisted of. On its website, Los Angeles Professional Security describes itself as a "subscription law enforcement service." The internal Citizen email says the company is "an additional response partner."

Another image of the Citizen-branded car. Image: Twitter via Angel Carreras.

A Citizen spokesperson told Motherboard that "LAPS offers a personal rapid response service that we are testing internally with employees as a small test. For example, if someone would like an escort to walk them home late at night, they can request this service. We have spoken with various partners in designing this pilot project." The spokesperson did not address other questions from Motherboard about the content of the leaked emails.

One of the emails says that Citizen has pitched the security response service to the Los Angeles Police Department at a high level. The email claims the LAPD said the solution could be a game changer. The email adds that the LAPD has been overrun with property crime, and the agency has effectively thrown its hands up because they don't have enough officers on the street to respond to these sorts of calls. The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Currently, Citizen offers a subscription product called "Protect," which costs $19.99 per month. Protect sends a user's location to a Citizen employee when it's turned on, can stream video to a "Protect agent" when activated using a safeword, and is pitched to users as a "digital bodyguard." Protect also advertises "Instant emergency response to your exact location," and says "Live monitoring means you never have to walk alone." It is not clear if the private security response would be tied to Protect or another service.

Securitas did not respond to a request for comment. Los Angeles Professional Security acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a response in time for publication.

Experts have criticized Citizen, saying the app may lead people to report things that aren't crime and may foster racism.

"Honestly Citizen as an app simply doesn't need to exist and it's more and more apparent as the months go on that leadership is just a bunch of scum," the former employee said.

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Tagged:

SURVEILLANCE, apps, Los Angeles, CYBER, private security, Securitas

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