Back in October we stumbled on a strange app called Vigilante. Push notifications would tell you about nearby robberies, shootings and other crimes. Under the tagline "Can injustice survive transparency?", Vigilante encouraged its New York City-based users to put themselves in harm's way to film these misdeeds.
Image: Citizen launch video
It lasted less than two days before being pulled from the app store.
Attempts to appeal Vigilante's App Store ban were unsuccessful, and a promised Android version never seemed to surface. An email to Vigilante's PR contact was replied to with a terse "No longer working there" in mid-December. But the app continued to function for some reason, sending me push notifications about people getting mugged or beaten with blunt objects in my neighbourhood.
As of today, however, Vigilante is back in the app store with a new name: Citizen. And that's about all that's changed! Citizen didn't even install as a separate app on my phone. It appeared as an update to Vigilante. What few changes have been made are entirely branding-based, as best I can tell. Citizen's relaunch video stresses avoidance rather than crime-fighting, as does the app's sign-up screen. A woman walks up to a park, receives a scary alert, and goes home instead.
Its first incarnation sold itself as tech's disruptive entry into policing, the start of a city-wide militia armed with mobile phones instead of guns. Citizen distances itself from that image for good reason. After its launch, Vigilante struck us and other tech sites as having many grave pitfalls. How long until it led someone to a honeypot location to get robbed? Which user would try to film a crime only to become a statistic?
But the guts and features of Vigilante/Citizen remain completely identical. The option to livestream crimes-in-progress or report crimes to other users still exists — both of which have plenty of potential to be used dangerously. Why a simple tweak in messaging was enough to satisfy Apple remains to be seen.
Sure, Citizen's founder has no experience in law enforcement, and the app is endorsed by known charlatan Deepak Chopra. And granted, no one we interviewed from Vigilante's parent company Sp0n would give us a straight answer as to how the app was gathering information about these crimes. In almost every way imaginable, it's still a deeply irresponsible thing to release to the public. But after four months of outlandish push notifications like "woman hit in face with phone at union square subway", I'm almost glad to see this bizarre app still kicking. Just whatever you do, don't go out and try to stop crimes with a phone.
We reached out to Apple and Citizen's parent company Sp0n but had not heard back at time of writing..