Seasons change. Light jackets reappear on city streets. Daylight saving time rears its ugly head again. And also: Vigilante is back.
Vigilante, publicly released in late October 2016 after incubating in beta, was an app that alerted New York City users about crimes happening nearby. It also encouraged users to report incidents on their own and broadcast live video from the crime scene. The app was removed from the App Store two days after its public launch.
The app is back in the App Store and on Android — except it’s been rebranded as “Citizen,” and its masked defender logo has been replaced by an eye. The changes were almost certainly in response to objections raised by police and civil rights advocates, who criticized it for encouraging people to put themselves in danger and interfere with police work, as well as for its potential for abuse.
It appears that Citizen still works the same way as Vigilante. It still shows users the locations of recently reported crimes, like the recent “WOMAN REFUSING TO LEAVE STARBUCKS,” one of the incidents visible on the app’s newsfeed along with a physical description of the woman.
The changes made by Sp0n, the company behind the app, appear to be exclusively cosmetic. Originally, the app was pitched as a way to empower everyday superheroes. The Vigilante launch video featured users running toward a woman who was being stalked by a hooded man at night; they saved her by pointing their recording phones at the perpetrator. “Can injustice survive transparency?” the app asked.
By contrast, the Citizen launch video shows a mother pushing a stroller toward Central Park during the day. When she gets an alert about an active shooter, she turns around to avoid the scene. The app now shows a pop-up that “provides stronger guidance to never approach a crime scene, interfere with an incident, or get in the way of police,” according to its App Store listing.
Most of the crimes reported in Citizen are sourced from police radio. But the original idea — to generate better live crime data by getting smartphone users to film crimes in progress — is still intact. That’s the idea that got nearly $1 million in investment from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and others. Without the user-generated content, Vigilante/Citizen would be no different from the slew of police scanner apps that are already out there.
Vigilante’s branding, terrible name, and aggressive marketing of itself as a disruptive tool of justice were a big part of why it was so poorly received. However, the cosmetic changes don’t address the concerns about endangering civilians — both those who show up to crime scenes uninvited, and those who are captured on video.
Sam Gregory, program director for WITNESS, an international nonprofit that trains people on how to ethically use video to expose human rights violations, believes that there is value in Citizen’s goal of transparency. However, the livestreaming video feature complicates the matter for everyone involved.
“You have to think about the risk to yourself, but frankly, the risk is often far greater to the people you film on the scene. For example, do you livestream the identity of a crucial witness and put that in the public sphere? Do you share an incredibly humiliating video of someone being assaulted? Or do you make someone appear like they’re guilty when they may not be?” he told The Outline.
These possible outcomes should be considered before releasing such a tool into the public sphere, Gregory said. “In their terms of service, they seem to have said, ‘Don’t take risks as the filmer,’” he said. “But they haven’t addressed the fundamental issue which underlies this, which is how to be an ethical witness.”
When asked about safety concerns, Citizen referred me to its relaunch announcement and press release.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the incident at Starbucks appeared to be reported by a user; in fact, Citizen says, all incidents in the app are sourced from calls to police. A feature to report incidents directly to Citizen will be removed in a future build, Sp0n CEO Andrew Frame said in an email.