Citizen App Set Off Hunt for Person Falsely Accused of Starting California Brush Fire

Citizen App Set Off Hunt for Person Falsely Accused of Starting California Brush Fire
Flames from the Palisades Fire glow in the distance in Topanga, northwest of Los Angeles, May 15, 2021. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon, Getty Images)

California’s wildfire season is already underway (well, it may never have actually stopped), and state investigators are looking into what ignited a 540 hectare brush fire that’s currently burning through Los Angeles’ Pacific Palisades and Topanga Canyon neighbourhoods.

They believe an arsonist may have started the blaze and currently have two suspects detained for questioning. But that’s not before users of the Citizen app led to someone being detained without sufficient evidence. Citizen is a phone app that sends users real-time, location-based safety alerts when crimes and other potentially dangerous events happen in their area. On Sunday, the app sent Los Angeles users a photograph of a man purportedly suspected of starting the fire, along with the promise of a cash reward for providing information.

“Citizen is offering a $US30,000 ($38,580) reward to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest of the arson suspect,” the notification said. Cerise Castle, a journalist following along as broadcasters on the app talked about the fire, tweeted that they were “repeating unsubstantiated ‘tips’ as facts and asking people to ‘hunt this guy down’. One of the tips just played out in air as being a lie.”

Police found and detained the man pictured in the Citizen notification, Devin Hilton, late Sunday night, a Los Angeles County lieutenant told Spectrum news reporter Kate Cagle. After interviewing him, cops didn’t actually have enough evidence to charge him with a crime and let him go shortly afterward. The lieutenant told Cagle that the effects of Citizen issuing notifications like this could have potentially “disastrous” consequences for those wrongly named.

In a statement to NBC News, the company admitted it made a “mistake.”

“Once we realised this error, we retracted the photo and reward offer,” the statement said. “Safety has always been, and remains, our top priority. Yesterday, we lost our way. We’ve learned from this, and we will be better. We unequivocally discourage anyone from putting themselves in danger or interfering with first responders’ work, and condemn all forms of violence.”

The company also said that the name and photo in the post came from a tipster and that they didn’t formally corroborate the information with authorities. Extremely bad look.

It’s worth noting, as Curbed writer Alissa Walker did, that the city and county had asked residents to download Citizen as Los Angeles’ official contact tracing app for covid-19. All told, the photo was sent around to more than 860,000 Los Angeles app users. The incident shows how outsourcing public functions to private companies can lead to unexpected and potentially dangerous consequences.

Meanwhile, the brush fire itself — which began on Friday night — is still burning, and 1,000 people are still under evacuation orders. The air is thick with smoke and ash, and Los Angeles officials have issued an air quality advisory that will extend at least through Monday. Thankfully, no structures were damaged and no injuries had been reported as of Monday morning.

Though it’s still not clear what ignited the fire, one thing is certain: It spread so easily because of hot, dry conditions that have gripped California. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the state’s drought emergency declaration Monday to cover 39 additional counties that encompass about 30% of the state’s population. The entire state is in drought following low winter snowfall and an early melt out, both hallmarks of the impacts climate change is having on the state. That’s set the stage for another horrific fire season, following last year’s record-setting season.

We may not yet know where the blame lays for this particular fire, but we do know what companies are most responsible for the crisis that created the conditions for it to spread. I wish we lived in a world where people were getting information about fossil fuel executives who should be tried for ecocide instead of alerts about people baselessly accused of arson.