In what truly seems like a dystopian nightmare come to life, the public safety alert app Citizen apparently has plans to hire teams of security contractors to respond to app users’ incident response requests—a sort of Blackwater-ification of local public safety that can surely only lead to good things.
When it started back in 2016, Citizen had a different name, Vigilante, and it was known for encouraging people to film and share videos of criminal activity in their community. Since then, the company rebranded, got a lot more funding, and transformed itself into a real-time public safety notification system that uses push alerts to tell users about local emergency information like fires, medical events and crime.
Now, merely a day or so after the company mistakenly put a bounty on an L.A. homeless man and falsely accused him of starting wildfires, Motherboard reports that ex-employees and leaked internal documents show Citizen’s next cool thing: imminent plans to contract with major security firms to send private goon squads to your neighborhood, where they will ostensibly check on whether you’re OK or not.
“The broad master plan was to create a privatized secondary emergency response network,” one former Citizen employee told Motherboard, while another ex-staffer told the outlet that the plans had “been something discussed for a while but I personally never expected it to make it this far.”
A lot is unclear here: what these services would be, how much they would cost, or who would access them. It’s also not totally clear if this pilot is the same one that the company recently announced on its website, Citizen Protect, which it describes as “an optional premium subscription” that is “still in testing and is not yet available to all users.” Protect apparently allows users to “connect to a trained Citizen Agent whenever you’re in an emergency or feel unsafe,” as the website puts it. When questioned by Gizmodo as to whether Protect was the same service referred to in Motherboard’s article, a Citizen spokesperson declined to comment further.
One of the companies Citizen is apparently testing its pilot with is a company called Los Angeles Professional Security, a self-proclaimed “subscription law enforcement” firm that provides “personal rapid response” to alarm activations and other emergency services. For $999 a month, you can hire LAPS to do all sorts of interesting security-related stuff, from anti-stalker assistance to getting you out of a tight jam when “civil unrest” is threatening your well-being. The company partially describes their services like this:
Ever been walking around the city and felt unsafe? Thought to yourself is someone following me? A few shady looking characters near by car? is someone screaming outside your building? LAPS Officer will arrive and provide you with personal protection you need. We can ask them to stop screaming.
That’s right, folks: The screaming stops today. When reached via phone, a staff member of LAPS referred Gizmodo to its website and YouTube channel for more information on its services but did not comment on any upcoming contract work with Citizen.
Citizen, however, confirmed that it was currently working with LAPS. A spokesperson sent us the following response: “LAPS offers a personal rapid response service that we are trialing internally with employees as a small test with one vehicle in Los Angeles. 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 cops seem to think this is all a good idea, too. Emails viewed by Motherboard allege that the Los Angeles Police Department has been in touch with Citizen and called the solution a “game changer.” The emails intimate 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 police department, when reached for comment Friday, neither confirmed nor denied that it had made contact with the company: “We are working to verify if anyone at LAPD was contacted by Citizen app,” said Det. Meghan Aguilar, of the LAPD’s Media Relations Division, in an email to Gizmodo. “At this time, we are not able to confirm if what is included in online articles is accurate as it relates to LAPD.”
Look, let’s just put aside the obvious: that having an app that summons up armed guards at a moment’s notice seems like a fairly dangerous idea. It’s the way that this business model could cater to the rich while being weaponized against lower-class communities that truly makes it feel like something out of The Running Man or Robocop. Bougie SoCal suburbanites calling armed mercenaries to check on what their poor neighbors or the local homeless person are up to...I mean, what could go wrong? I definitely can’t see any looming scandals or lawsuits on the horizon there. Forecast looks good, folks.