"Vehicle Collision With Injuries. Attempted Assault. Gas Odor. Nude Woman Breaking Windows. People Fighting With Metal Poles. Sailboat Stuck Under a Bridge. Man Being Assaulted With Belt. Neighbor Performing Voodoo." These (including the last one, seriously) are just a tiny fraction of the alerts that have been pumped into peoples’ phones the past few weeks, courtesy of Citizen, the app that, in real time, notifies you about local “emergencies,” of widely varying degrees of danger and oftentimes bizarreness. The phone alerts are reported by emergency response systems already in place.
Citizen is essentially a rebranded, second-generation version of the Vigilante app, which informed users of nearby crimes, but also encouraged them to take action in seeking justice. That message spurred the New York Police Department to issue a statement, out of safety concerns, stressing to people that it is the job of law enforcement to handle criminal activity, not ordinary citizens. (Vigilante was soon thereafter removed from Apple’s App Store, as it violated company policies.) The Citizen app does advertise on its free download page that it can help “Protect the World” by “Keeping you safe and informed,” but its parent company, Sp0n, has toned down the be-more-like-Batman language.
Citizen, which operates in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, has apparently done some good, with users in New York spotting missing persons on at least two occasions, and a school principal once saying that she kept buses of students from driving toward what turned out to be a terrorist attack. But the app has also raised concerns that, ultimately, its rate of stoking anxiety in people far outweighs any of its benefits. The default notification ding itself is even pretty scary. It sounds kind of like a muffled gunshot or firework followed by a puffing of smoke.
“Crime is now at historic lows in the city,” wrote New York City Councilmember Justin Brannan, in an op-ed about Citizen for BuzzFeed, “but because residents are constantly being bombarded with push notifications of crime, they believe the city is going to hell in a handbasket.”
In his piece, he recalled an incident in which a teen, who’d gotten into a physical altercation on the street, ran into the bathroom at a Dunkin’ Donuts, where Brannan was waiting in line. The kid was apparently hiding out from police. A moment later, Brannan’s phone burped a notification that there was a report of an attempted robbery at the Dunkin’ Donuts he was standing in.
“There was no robbery,” Brannan wrote. “But for anyone else sitting on their couch with their phone buzzing every five minutes announcing another crime in progress, it might feel like it’s time to lock yourself inside your apartment and never come out.”
If you’re someone who’s already living with an anxiety disorder — where fears and worries disrupt the functioning of your everyday life — Citizen can certainly exacerbate it.
“If you have this constant hypervigilance, that your nervous system has to have because something bad is [seemingly] always happening, that’s problematic for anxiety,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating people with anxiety disorders, commenting on apps like Citizen. “It’s totally overestimating the probability of things.”
Cohen adds that she spends the bulk of her time getting clients with anxiety disorders to find comfort in the fact that the chances of catastrophe striking them are far less likely than they believe.
It’s unclear how many people use Citizen — though Bloomberg reports at least one million people have downloaded the app in New York alone — and nobody quite knows how the app’s engineers pick and choose the alerts that flow into the ether. “The company employs teams of people to listen to police, fire, and emergency radio transmissions and to submit certain categories of incident for including in the app,” reports the New York Times.
An app representative told the paper that there is “a detailed editorial guide about what goes into the app and why,” and that Citizen does not publicize “suicides inside a private residence, suspicious people, or vague suspect descriptions.” (Citizen also told the Times it does not advertise or sell user data.)
But getting a notification like “Man Stabbed, Hit in Head With Chair” sent to phones seems to serve little purpose to virtually anyone who might receive it. Even if a user lives next door to the violence — and didn’t hear it in the first place — they’d only be endangering themselves more if they intervened. And based on the company’s statement to the Times, if the incident is showing up on the app, then law enforcement has likely already been dispatched to the scene.
“If you ask any cop, most of this stuff is domestic anyway,” Cohen says, “so it’s not a threat … it’s not even helpful.”
The information dispersed by Citizen “has a very real influence in how we conduct ourselves — how we vote, how we raise our families, how we treat each other,” Brannan wrote in his op-ed. He concluded it with: “There’s enough fear and anxiety in this world as it is.”