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Citizen crime-tracking app, funded by Peter Thiel, scraps plans for on-demand police force

Citizen app scraps plans for security force
Citizen app scraps plans for security force 07:49

The crowdsourcing crime-tracking app Citizen, whose earliest backers include the venture capitalist billionaire and Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel, is ditching plans to develop a private police force that could be summoned by users via the smartphone app, CBS MoneyWatch has learned. 

The company began offering the service in Los Angeles last month as a pilot program. During the trial, the service, which included a company-branded squad car, was only available to company employees. For the service, Citizen partnered with a private firm called Los Angeles Professional Security, which describes itself as a provider of "subscription law enforcement."

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Citizen partnered with a firm called Los Angeles Professional Security (LAPS) for its on-demand personal security service. LAPS describes itself as a "subscription law enforcement" service. Courtesy of Los Angeles Professional Security.

But on Tuesday, Citizen ended the program, stating it has no plans to launch a similar service elsewhere.

"This was a small 30-day test that is now complete," a Citizen spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. "We have no plans to launch our own private security force and no ongoing relationship with LAPS." 

The spokesperson declined to say why the New York City-based company has decided not to pursue the service. The spokesperson had previously told CBS MoneyWatch and other news outlets that Citizen envisioned launching a security service that could provide protection for users traveling at night, among other offerings.

The company's decision to shut down an on-call security service follows more than a week of negative publicity for the popular app, which uses cellphone-location data to alert users of potential safety hazards, emergencies and criminal activity in their area. The app gets its reports from police scanners and 911-call dispatches as well as from users who upload their own videos at the scene of an accident, crime or other emergency.

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A picture of a bus seen hanging from a Cross Bronx Expressway overpass in New York City posted on the Citizen app by a user on January 14, 2021. Citizen App

Four years since its launch, Citizen now has 7 million users. The company on its app highlights instances when Citizen has been used to locate lost dogs, and other feel-good events. Citizen says its app has been used to alert people to evacuate burning buildings and has even helped to locate kidnapped children and missing people. 

But as Citizen's popularity has grown, so, too, has its number of critics, who say the app raises privacy issues as well as racial bias. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the nonprofit privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CBS MoneyWatch that while Citizen promises to protect its users' data, there are other concerns in question.

"The app gives people the power to say who is and who isn't suspicious, and who belongs in their community," said Guariglia. "These apps are a digital superhighway for racial profiling."

One of Citizen's first investors was Thiel's Founders Fund, which led a seed investment of $1 million into the company in late 2016. Thiel also helped co-found Palantir Technologies, the controversial data-mining company that has faced criticism in recent years over privacy concerns and the vast amounts of data it collects and synthesizes for corporate and government clients. Palantir has worked with U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Critics such as Amnesty International say ICE has used Palantir's analytical software to find and arrest the parents of children who have crossed the U.S. border unaccompanied and to conduct workplace raids. Palantir disputes that its software is connected to arrests or deportations. 

Palantir's data mining and privacy concerns 07:16

Two years after the Thiel fund's investment, 8VC, the investment firm of another Palantir co-founder, Joseph Lonsdale, split a $47 million investment in Citizen with another venture capital firm, according to Crunchbase, which collects data on startups. Lonsdale is now a member of Citizen's board, along with former New York City police chief William Bratton.

Palantir said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last month that it maintains a commercial relationship with Lonsdale Enterprises, which Palantir said is affiliated with Joseph Lonsdale, the investor and Citizen board member. Palantir paid Lonsdale's firm $240,000 in 2020 and $60,000 in the first three months of this year, according to the filing.

A Citizen spokesperson said the company has no ties to Palantir.

Jake Medwell, a partner of Lonsdale who is also a board member of Citizen, said the app company, which charges users for premium services, is "doing very well from a revenue perspective." 

Medwell said claims of racial bias leveled against the company's service are unfair because all of the information in the app either comes from public sources or other users reporting it. "I am very proud of [Citizen's CEO] Andrew Frame and the job he is doing," said Medwell. "But because of the nature of the business that Citizen is in, it's a very difficult business to build."

Citizen has run into some difficult situations lately.

In mid-May, the app misidentified a homeless person as the source of a recent wildfire in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles. Citizen posted pictures of the man, and offered a $30,000 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to his arrest. A few days later, a different man was arrested for the crime. LAPD Lt. Jim Brandon called Citizen's action potentially "disastrous" at a press conference on the incident.

Citizen told the New York Times that the company made a mistake and that it's working to "improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again."

Vice.com's Motherboard was first to report Citizen's plans to provide a private security force that could rush to the scene of a disturbance at the request of one of its app users. Policy analyst Guariglia called the potential service "incredibly disturbing." 

Earlier this week, Motherboard also reported that the app, which added a COVID-19 contract-tracing feature earlier this year, had exposed users' self-reported test results and symptoms even in instances when users had opted to keep that information private. The company called the incident a data breach that it said was quickly addressed. Citizen said it has hired an outside firm to determine how much of its users' private data had been exposed. 

"One of the things that really concerns me about Citizen, in particular, is that it's clear it's no longer an app that is just trying to keep a neighborhood informed," said Guariglia. "This is something completely different."

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