Crime fighting and neighborhood alert app Citizen is looking to expand into Ukraine as Russia continues to invade the country, Motherboard has learned. Citizen told employees it was partnering with broadcaster CBS for the move, with CBS correspondents providing on the ground footage to Citizen, which will then create an ‘incident’ in the Citizen app, according to an internal Citizen email obtained by Motherboard. CBS told Motherboard there is no partnership.
“We’ve brainstormed and gathered ideas on how to safely use our platform during this heartbreaking crisis in the Ukraine,” the internal Citizen email reads, using the outdated Soviet reference for Ukraine. “Our mission is to protect the world, and at moments like these we must think creatively to determine how our technology can do just that.”
The plan illustrates the company’s penchant for pushing itself into situations beyond its declared remit, and how Citizen now seemingly sees itself as not just being a tool for alerting people to crime, but to incidents on an international scale and during a war, too. As Motherboard has previously reported, sometimes the app’s push notifications can overwhelm users, and former employees allege they’re designed to increase engagement and encourage users to sign up for paid services. Now, Citizen is looking to take that app, in a different form, into a warzone.
The move also raises questions about why CBS, a respected news organization, would hold discussions with an app that previously directly encouraged vigilantism. A CBS News spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement that “There were discussions, but ultimately they didn't materialize.”
Do you work at Citizen? Did you used to? 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, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ordinarily, Citizen has workers listening to police radio scanners who then digest and write push alerts summarizing the situation. The company also offers Protect, a paid subscription service where users can have a Citizen employee follow their location and call emergency services on their behalf if required.
Citizen's plan for Ukraine is different from how it operates elsewhere, where users of the app can record and post their own content. Its plan for working with CBS was also quite detailed. The email explains that CBS correspondents on the ground in Ukraine would record eyewitness accounts every other day and provide those to Citizen.
“Once we’ve obtained footage, we’ll title it accordingly, add a brief incident summary, and decide how we want to target distribution and notify our users,” the email adds. “For now, this footage will be low frequency and we’ve directly instructed CBS correspondents that we do not want any graphic or overly disturbing visuals.”
It's unclear how Citizen will move forward without CBS. A spokesperson for Citizen acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide a statement.
Citizen sits in a position halfway between a public awareness or safety app, and being a startup driven by metrics and revenue like any other. The inherent friction in this dichotomy has led to highly controversial decisions by the company. Last year Citizen broadcast the name and photograph of an innocent man it suspected was linked to an arson and put a $30,000 bounty on information leading to his arrest at the direction of the company’s CEO Andrew Frame. In internal Slack messages leaked to Motherboard, Frame said the move could boost app user numbers. The newly leaked email suggests Frame is involved in this latest planned expansion to Ukraine as well.
Moving into a warzone would be a dramatic expansion in scope for Citizen. But the company has explored similar steps before. A source with knowledge of the company said that Citizen discussed doing something similar in Afghanistan.
“There was talk of deploying the Citizen app and tracking Taliban movements, somehow integrating Protect, mercenaires, a lot of crazy stuff was flying around,” the source said. Motherboard granted the source anonymity as they were not permitted to speak to the press.
Last year Motherboard reported that Citizen trialed an on-demand private security force in Los Angeles.