The smartphone app Citizen describes itself in simple terms: a safety network that sends alerts about nearby incidents including crime. But in recent months, its business has pushed into potentially dangerous new territory, alarming law enforcement officials and people who worked there.
In Los Angeles, the company's CEO, Andrew Frame, ordered his staff to put a $30,000 reward on the capture of a man he incorrectly thought was responsible for starting a brushfire that was threatening homes. The sheriff's office denounced the move, saying it put the man in danger, and the man was cleared of wrongdoing.
Days later, people started to see what looked like a law enforcement SUV bearing Citizen's logo driving around Los Angeles. It turned out to be a test of a private security force for people willing to pay the company a monthly fee, and it was quickly denounced on social media as a dystopian idea that could interfere with the 911 system. The company then abandoned the test.
These attempts by Citizen to branch out are causing alarm among both experts and people who have worked at Citizen, because they say the company seems to be heading in a new, more aggressive direction that may end up doing more harm than good.
"Why does Andrew Frame get to decide to put a bounty on anyone's head?" said one former Citizen employee, who said he was disgusted by the turn the company has taken, including its use of an online wanted poster not authorized by police. Like other former Citizen employees, he agreed to be interviewed about his experience at the company on the condition of anonymity, saying he feared retaliation from Citizen management for speaking against the company.
"It should make everyone afraid, because it could be anyone," the former employee said. "There's no oversight."
Citizen, which is based in New York City and initially went by the name Vigilante, got to this juncture in a roundabout journey, marked over the past two years by a major shake-up in senior management, the departure of a co-founder, the elimination of the company's growth team and what former employees called a desperate search to find a way to make money from the information it's been collecting in about 30 U.S. cities.
It's not unusual for tech startups to cycle through business ideas and focus on growth as they figure out what they want to be. But because Citizen is focused on public safety, the stakes behind each idea are higher.
"When you're dealing with public safety, it's more difficult to take risks than if you're dealing with restaurant reviews," said a second former Citizen employee.
Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP and a former partner at a firm that invested in Citizen, has helped to burnish the company's reputation, comparing it to street lights as a basic safety tool. In a statement Tuesday, he said he still believes in the app's ability to help vulnerable communities find missing people and avoid danger, but he also expressed concern.
"These were serious mistakes that cannot be repeated," Jealous said through a personal spokesperson. "I'm hopeful that the company will both course correct quickly as they've done in the past and put checks in place to prevent future missteps."
NBC News spoke with eight former employees of Citizen who collectively described a startup that frequently acts without thinking through consequences, and often fails to live up to its marketing themes about putting safety over other priorities such as attracting new users.
Three of the former employees said they believed Citizen was moving closer to the earlier version of the app, Vigilante, which launched in 2016 and was banned from Apple's App Store for encouraging people to rush toward violence. That version was marketed as a way for civilians to take the law into their own hands and respond to crime in progress, rather than avoid it.
Frame did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokesperson for Citizen said he had declined the request and that no one else was available for an interview.
In a statement, the company said it wants to create a network of people protecting one another, despite the fire incident in Los Angeles, which the company called a mistake.
"One of the goals when we founded the company was to create symmetry of information between the community and law enforcement — so nobody has to wonder why there's a police car on their corner or helicopters overhead," the company said in response to written questions. "Citizen creates an open, shared safety system where police and citizens can hold each other accountable. This is the only way to rebuild trust between community and law enforcement."
It is also "completely untrue" that there had been turmoil or high turnover within the company since the start of 2020, a spokesperson said.
From Vigilante to Citizen
Citizen is one of a handful of apps that have risen in popularity in recent years as a way for people to track, report and share local news and discuss crime close to home.
"It's extending the dragnet of surveillance into residential space, and that I believe is something new," said Lauren Bridges, a doctoral candidate in critical data studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written about the impact of another home security tech product, Amazon's Ring cameras.
But unlike the neighborhood-focused social media network Nextdoor and the Neighbors app, which is used to share videos from Ring cameras, Citizen's focus is squarely on local crime. Opening the app brings the user to a map of their nearby area with a line sweeping around the screen reminiscent of a radar tracking system, showing incidents.
Citizen captures information about crime from several sources — including law enforcement radio traffic — and presents it to people in a localized form. Last year, it added localized information about the spread of Covid-19.
Residents can use the app to broadcast video live from the scene of a fire, car wreck, crime or other incident, and law enforcement officers can, too.
Citizen is available in about 30 cities nationwide and says on its website that it's "working to expand our coverage rapidly to more cities." The company has raised more than $130 million in funding from some of the biggest venture capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and Greycroft, according to Crunchbase, a website that tracks startups.
The app has found some success, though not the kind typically encouraged by startups backed with tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. It has been downloaded about 11.7 million times since its launch, according to Apptopia, a tech research firm. Its growth has been steady over the past two years, according to Apptopia data, though well behind the most popular consumer apps.
And users tend to engage with the app consistently. Categorized in app stores as a "news" app, Citizen is in the top 20 percent for seven-day retention among Apple iOS users and the top 10 percent among Google Android users. Downloads peaked in June 2020, during nationwide protests over police violence, Apptopia research says.
Citizen said in response to written questions that it has a clear strategy and business plan, but it did not say what the plan is, other than that it does not involve selling user data or advertisements. It said it had more than doubled its user base in 2020.
But in a possible warning sign, the percentage of negative user reviews has been increasing in recent months, according to Apptopia. In January, about 23 percent of reviews were negative, steadily increasing to 37 percent in May. Some have found the app so off-putting that they decided to delete it. (Citizen noted that it still has a 4.8 rating on Apple's app store.)
At its best, the app serves as something of a neighborhood watch. Its users have been responsible for finding a missing 76-year-old man in New York, alerting a New York apartment dweller to a fire in his own building and helping a person in Atlanta avoid a nearby armed robbery, among other success stories, according to the company.
"We take great care to differentiate incidents and describe them accurately and objectively," Citizen said in a statement. The company says, for example, that it labels incidents as "unconfirmed" unless confirmed by law enforcement.
To some others, though, the information on Citizen isn't so reliable.
A third former employee said he came to doubt the accuracy of most of the information on Citizen because of what he called the lack of in-depth vetting. Citizen staff members often pass along information directly from police scanners, a notoriously unverified source, he said.
"It fuels public insanity and fear," the former employee said. "The effect of Citizen is to make everybody afraid in a community. I'm not a supporter. I tell people that."
Citizen said in a statement that it updates a post if it receives information indicating that a report was a false alarm. It also says its staff members, known as "analysts," often have backgrounds in media or law enforcement that help them filter information. They receive training and follow manuals, according to the company.
Citizen staff members generally spend most of an eight-hour shift monitoring scanner traffic from multiple cities, with different cities each night, often listening to recordings at double-speed to maximize efficiency, a fourth former employee said.
"That sounds like it can get overwhelming, and at times it can be," she said. "I had nightmares every night about either waking up to work late or, worse yet, falling really, really behind on radio clips." She said analysts discussed organizing but didn't form a union while she was there.
She said that one day last year, in the late spring or early summer, Citizen sent a celebratory-but-premature notification that "we had flattened the curve" against Covid-19, but "that was not true at all. There was no proper vetting there," she said.
Atop the company is Frame, 41, the CEO and a co-founder. A teenage prodigy as a hacker who dropped out of high school and avoided jail time as a minor after he breached NASA computer systems, he made tens of millions of dollars from early work at Facebook building network architecture, according to a 2019 profile in Forbes magazine.
Frame started Citizen in 2016 as the Vigilante app, and former employees said they fear he never lost his interest in a swashbuckling, vigilante-style network, despite Apple's veto of that idea and public statements from Citizen afterward disavowing the original ethos.
"The company was spending so much time and effort to try to get away from the Vigilante thing, when it was so clear that Frame loved the Vigilante thing," a fifth former employee said. "He would always show us videos or things related to the Vigilante days." Among the videos he would play for employees was a 2016 marketing video, by then years old, showcasing how civilians might rush toward a violent crime in progress if asked to do so, this person said.
A sixth former employee said that, on one occasion, Frame defended the original Vigilante marketing theme after a staff member in a meeting had offhandedly called it a mistake.
"Andrew was like, 'That wasn't a mistake,'" the former employee said. "He said, 'The worst thing that can befall a company is to be ignored.' He said, 'That's what put this company on the map.'"
A Citizen spokesperson did not answer a written question about whether Frame replays the old Vigilante marketing video for the staff, or whether he's interested in returning to that idea.
A seventh former employee was skeptical that Frame had done anything out of line, saying that while Frame is "definitely a passionate individual," at the same time, there was a "clear red line that he could never cross." That threshold was to not identify specific people in the app, or to start "manhunts."
"I know while I was there that the red line existed, and everyone around Frame was aware of it, and we never had to remind Frame that that line existed either, probably because the platform's entire existence depended on it," this person said.
But by last month, Frame was enthusiastically backing the idea of manhunts, according to screenshots of internal company communications seen by NBC News and first reported by Motherboard.
"We should catch a new bad guy EVERY DAY," Frame told employees via the messaging app Slack, according to the screenshots.
The context was the brushfire in Los Angeles that had forced evacuations. Citizen told people on its app that it was offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of what it said was an "arson suspect." It showed a photograph of the person, and during a live broadcast within the app, hosts from Citizen repeatedly asked listeners to "bring this guy to justice," according to Cerise Castle, a journalist who live-tweeted the broadcast.
Frame signed off on and encouraged the reward, according to the Slack screenshots.
"FIND THIS F---," he wrote, using an expletive. "This guy is the devil. Get him," he said.
For Frame, there was a potential personal stake: He lives near the site of the fire, a Citizen spokesperson confirmed.
But it turned out the person was wanted only for questioning, not as a suspect. The company said it received information about a person of interest from a police sergeant — including the man's identity and a photo — and that its staff members concluded prematurely, on their own, that he was a suspect. The information did not come through the Los Angeles Police Department's designated public information officer, and it's not clear if a Citizen staff member spoke personally with the sergeant or how the company communicated with authorities in the case.
"Typically, we verify information with the appropriate agencies; in this case, we moved too quickly after receiving information about a person of interest, from an LAPD Sergeant, and did not follow our strict protocols for verifying information with the appropriate public safety agencies," Citizen said in a statement.
The reward was potentially "disastrous" because it could have led to someone getting hurt, the Los Angeles sheriff's office said. Sheriff's deputies eventually found the man and released him because they did not have evidence to charge him, according to Spectrum News. They later charged someone else with starting the blaze.
But Citizen isn't ruling out more rewards in the future. The company said it was evaluating the impact and usefulness of offering rewards and would move forward in a way that benefits public safety.
Another idea to emerge at the startup recently was Citizen Protect, a $20-a-month service that would give subscribers the ability to call a Citizen staff member at any time as kind of a digital bodyguard. The staff member could video-chat during a walk home at night, for example. Two of the former employees said the idea was panned by some internally as not a product many people would pay for.
Citizen said the Protect product was still being tested, and that as of now, the company has no plans to launch its own private security force. The SUV in Los Angeles was a promotional vehicle and the only one used as part of a pilot project, according to Citizen. "We are constantly testing new ideas," the company said.
The churn of ideas coincided with a nearly wholesale turnover in senior management during 2020, according to interviews with former employees and profiles on LinkedIn.
Luis Samaniego, a Citizen co-founder, left last year to work at a company that makes retail checkout software. He declined an interview request. And others who left last year included the head of design, the head of growth and the head of product — accounting for many of Frame's direct reports. The senior staff members who remained included the head of engineering, the head of central operations and Frame himself.
"The upper management kept changing repeatedly, to the point where I just stopped keeping track of who had what title," said one of the former employees.
Citizen has sometimes drawn on high-profile supporters such as Jealous and William Bratton, who has led police departments in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, to enhance its image. Bratton has served on Citizen's board and praised its usefulness for information about Covid-19. He did not respond to a request for an interview about Citizen's latest projects.
Researchers who have studied the rise of crime-monitoring apps said Citizen's expansion is alarming in part because, for some users, it may turn surveillance into a kind of hobby.
"It's turning neighbors into a kind of informant, who is then reporting on happenings in a residential space," said Bridges, the Penn doctoral candidate.
In the case of Amazon's Ring security cameras, the value to law enforcement hasn't always lived up to the hype. NBC News reported last year that, in a sample of 40 law enforcement agencies that had partnered with Ring to share videos, about a third had made zero arrests as a result of the footage.
Lilly Irani, a communication professor at the University of California, San Diego, said there's a danger that the Citizen app plays into people's racial stereotypes of what a crime suspect might look like, especially if there's a repeat of the brushfire reward.
And she said apps like Citizen may encourage people to think they're solving society's problems when, in fact, their online browsing and posting may be a distraction from getting involved in tangible solutions.
"It's harder to call your City Council member than it is to download an app and click a button," Irani said.