"Can injustice survive transparency?" is the tagline of a new app called Vigilante, that purports to empower its users to stop crimes in progress, turning each of us into Daredevil or Luke Cage. In practice, though, Vigilante could end up being the best way to waste people's time, annoy the NYPD or just maybe get people killed. Vigilante ended its 1000-user closed beta and launched publicly in New York City on Wednesday. The app is made by mobile app company Sp0n, and employs a 15-person team, headed by CEO Andrew Frame. Vigilante is meant to let everyone be something like an emergency responder. What users do with alerts about crimes supposedly in progress is up to them, though the app certainly prioritises involvement over avoidance.
— Vigilante (@vigilantelive) October 26, 2016
The app features a map of all recently reported crimes, and gives users the ability to film and upload video of those incidents for other Vigilantes to watch. Location-based push notifications are delivered when a report is called in nearby. Though Vigilante warns users not to interfere and "keep a safe distance", the company's own (heavily) dramatised launch video shows a user coming within metres of a man assaulting a young woman while waving a phone in front of the criminal's face. And interference is clearly something Frame considered, if the app's release clause is any indication:
You hereby release the Sp0n entities from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever, arising out of or related to any loss, property damage, physical injury, contagious disease or death that may be sustained by you while in, on upon any premises or vehicles owned, occupied or used by the foregoing, or which may be sustained by you while at the scene of any real or apparent crime or other dangerous or hazardous circumstance or activity. This release will be binding upon your relatives, spouse, heirs, next of kin, executors, administrators, and any other interest parties.
Besides potentially endangering its users, Vigilante presents a honeypot for abuse. Knowing police have been dispatched in droves to one specific area of the city could allow criminals to target that area when law enforcement are otherwise occupied. Likewise, the Report Incident feature in the app could be used to lure users into dangerous situations. The best use case for Vigilante would seem to be oversight on the police themselves — something that bystanders have been doing for some time already, with or without an app.
"We believe the 911 system information should be open. If a person needs help and hundreds of people are nearby, why shouldn't they know?" Frame told Gizmodo over email. But how is Vigilante able to access 911 information in the first place? Frame declined to speak on the phone, but wrote that the app's underlying system is a "combination of technology and people, police scanners and network of antennas (sic)". In other words, Vigilante isn't opening the 911 system so much as giving the illusion of it.
Many of the incidents that popped up on Vigilante when I used it this week would not benefit in any way from being filmed — and the few users I could find filming these reports invariably showed up after law enforcement had already arrived on the scene. The one exception was filmed by Vigilante "boywonder" who responded to the alert "MAN PUNCHED IN FACE BY PASSERBY WHILE ASKING FOR CHANGE". The homeless man boywonder found describes being hit as "no serious issue". Passing cars obscure the audio and poor lighting makes it nearly impossible to identify the man who was allegedly assaulted.
Boywonder is one of the service's most prolific Vigilantes, filming incidents all over south Brooklyn. How does he have time to shlep all over Crown Heights, Brownsville and Bed-Stuy, just to record videos? "I work for Vigilante," he says to the homeless man in the assault video. It's not clear if boywonder is being paid by the service. He certainly could have misrepresented his relationship with the app. But it's far from Vigilante's strangest association.
Deepak Chopra, known new-age garbage artist and competitor for Apple's bad "mindfulness" Watch app, is among Vigilante's loudest champions — and apparent personal friend to Andrew Frame. In a Facebook Live video later shared to the Vigilante page, Chopra reads the company's pitch, seemingly unsure of what exactly it is he's trying to sell his followers on. One can only imagine Frame's horror once Chopra goes completely off script. "I believe, ultimately, it will be the solution to terrorism as well," Chopra says. "We are entering a new age where all boundaries are being broken because cyberspace doesn't have any boundaries... it will make obsolete all the spy systems."
In my two days testing the app, Vigilante only alerted me to one event in walking distance — TRACK FIRE IN STATION — an incident of so little consequence I couldn't imagine anyone bothering to call 911 about it. And supposing the Union Square subway station had mobile service (it doesn't) what could possibly be gained by filming members of the FDNY doing their jobs?
To the app's credit, its alert popped up a full 15 minutes before the New York City Subway Twitter account confirmed the incident. After walking two blocks back over to Union Square, I spotted two firefighters on the southbound 4, 5, 6 platform and asked if there was a track fire. "Yeah but they're already clearing it up," was the bored response. Five minutes after the first tweet, NYCS wrote that those subway lines had resumed with delays.
Frame's previous business experience lies well outside the scope of law enforcement — first consulting for Cisco and Procket, and later founding a "smart home phone" start-up called Ooma. Strangely, Vigilante is not listed on his LinkedIn, and the websites for both the app and Sp0n are eerily devoid of meaningful information.
He wouldn't say if 911 or the NYPD works with or condones Vigilante, but described the app's relationship with law enforcement as "developing". The Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Relations for the NYPD told Gizmodo in an email that, "crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cell phone."