By Elizabeth Culliford
(Reuters) -U.S. crime alert app Citizen is launching its first paid feature, offering subscribers access to a live safety agent when they are in “stressful or uncertain situations.”
Citizen uses crowd-sourced content and police scanner traffic to notify users in the United States of local incidents. It has been criticized for promoting vigilantism, particularly after it posted a $30,000 reward to find a man wrongly suspected of arson in May.
The new feature, called Protect, can monitor a subscriber’s location if they feel unsafe or connect them through video or text with a Citizen employee who can escalate calls to 911 or first responders.
The agent can also notify a person’s emergency contacts or kick off a “public incident,” sending an alert for help to other Citizen users in the vicinity.
A spokeswoman said Protect was not aiming to replace 911 but could help reduce the number of non-emergency calls.
“Citizen has been a one-way system to date. We provide real-time situational awareness and our users can decide what to do with it,” Citizen’s chief executive, Andrew Frame, said in a statement. “Starting today, Citizen is now a two-way system where users can request help from Citizen.”
The app, originally launched in 2016 under the name Vigilante, in recent months has been expanding its remit. Protect, which will cost $19.99 a month, has been in testing with nearly 100,000 users, but will now be available for the app’s 8 million users, starting with iOS devices.
Citizen recently caused controversy over what it said was an internal test for a service that would deploy private contractors as rapid-response security personnel to users in Los Angeles. A company spokeswoman said the pilot was not connected to the Protect feature and it has no plans to create its own security force.
Citizen said subscribers can activate Protect by pressing a “get agent” button, shaking their phone or via “distress detection” mode, which uses technology to monitor a phone’s audio to identify sounds like a scream.
It declined to comment on the number of Protect Agents hired.
Neighborhood safety apps like Citizen, as well as hyper-local site Nextdoor, which racked up users during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors community app have come under scrutiny over concerns of surveillance and racial profiling, especially after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Citizen said in a statement that its Protect Agents, who include former law enforcement officers and medical responders, take a four-week certification course and receive training on bias prevention, anti-racism awareness and mental illness.
Citizen has raised more than $130 million in funding from venture capital firms like Greycroft and Sequoia Capital, according to start-up tracker site Crunchbase.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin and Leslie Adler)