The crime-tracking app Citizen is now launching its own emergency response service, promising access to agents who can call 911 or keep tabs on a potentially dangerous situation. Protect, which costs $19.99 per month, builds on a beta program that launched earlier this year. It’s part of a larger — and sometimes controversial — expansion effort at the startup, which has built a crime-mapping system into a live broadcasting platform while experimenting with private security services.
Citizen Protect is essentially a private safety help line that draws on smartphone features like location tracking. When subscribers open the Citizen app, they can hit a button to call a “Protect Agent” via video, audio, or text. Agents are supposed to talk subscribers through unsafe scenarios and help callers navigate to a safe public place if necessary. They can dial 911 or a designated emergency contact and provide location information from the caller’s phone. And they can create a public Citizen incident with the subscriber’s consent, alerting nearby Citizen users to what’s happening.
On iOS, subscribers can turn on an automated “Protect Mode” as well. This sets the app to listen for a “distress signal” such as a scream — after which it will ask if the user wants to call an agent, then connect to one automatically if there’s no answer. Users can also shake their phones rapidly to connect with an agent. (Citizen says it will add these options to Android soon.) If users are in trouble but can’t directly ask for help, agents can still listen in via a phone’s microphone and call 911 if they deem it necessary.
Citizen’s main service is a crime-tracking app that posts reports of nearby safety incidents based on user tips, police scanner data, and other sources. It’s moved into live video as well, recruiting paid streamers to cover reports of missing children, house fires, and crime scenes. In a statement, Citizen CEO Andrew Frame said Protect marks an evolution from “a one-way system” for broadcasting safety alerts to “a two-way system where users can request help from Citizen.”
Citizen may have an incentive to publicize calls in a way that 911 operators don’t. Earlier this year the company launched OnAir, a live broadcast system that blends crime tracking with local reporting. In a high-profile misfire, Citizen OnAir streamers urged users to hunt down an innocent man falsely suspected of arson. That said, publicity could be helpful to some subscribers: Citizen promotes its ability to spread the word about lost people and pets, for instance, crediting the app with 20 rescues since its 2017 launch. And it promises agents will never create a Citizen alert without permission.
Citizen has tested patrol cars rented from private security outfits, but at least so far, Protect isn’t a substitute for police or 911. Its agents don’t dispatch special private forces, and they’re purely remote operators. Some features also don’t seem like a huge upgrade to existing smartphone options. Apple’s Emergency SOS can discreetly call 911 and share location data alongside an emergency call, and it includes extra features like automatic fall detection.
In a call with The Verge, Citizen promoted Protect for risky situations that aren’t yet 911-worthy emergencies. The company claims agents’ presence has helped deescalate disputes during the beta, offering examples like someone having a heated argument with a volatile roommate. It says some Black beta users have asked agents to watch if they’re stopped by law enforcement, building on Citizen’s existing capabilities for monitoring police during protests.
Protect’s value hinges on its promise of quick and competent support across the roughly 60 US cities where it operates. Citizen tells The Verge that Protect operators are hired directly, not subcontracted through another security service, and that its staff has comfortably supported around 100,000 beta users. It declined to disclose how many agents it employs, and it hasn’t offered detail on how often most Protect beta users call them.
A Fast Company article questioned the capabilities of Protect agents during the beta, noting that the qualifications in a job listing were “minimal.” Conversely, Citizen describes its agents as “highly trained safety experts” who sometimes have experience as social workers, police dispatchers, and emergency responders. Among other things, it says the employees complete a four-week Public Safety Telecommunicator certification course that includes training on bias and mental health.
Critics have accused Citizen of inciting fear and paranoia so it can sell peace of mind through services like Protect. One former employee told Vice that “the whole idea behind Protect is that you could convince people to pay for the product once you’ve gotten them to the highest point of anxiety you can possibly get them to.” Citizen has denied the claim, saying that it surfaces only “relevant, real-time information” about people’s surroundings.
But Protect could offer some support for people experiencing persistent health issues or threats like stalking. Unlike a 911 call, a Protect call doesn’t directly prompt a police dispatch that could turn violent. And there’s no sharing system that could amplify noncredible or bias-fueled accusations the way a social network might, so an agent could theoretically defuse situations without getting anyone else involved. While Protect is described as an app feature, its value will probably depend on the humans Citizen can hire — and how Citizen tells them to respond to users’ calls.