Andrew Frame couldn’t fathom why armed men, guns drawn, were pulling him out of bed early one morning. It was 1997, he was 17, living in Las Vegas, and the men with the guns, it turned out, were FBI agents. While they handcuffed him and proceeded to toss his apartment, Frame wondered if maybe his roommates had gotten mixed up in some crazy criminal activity. It never occurred to him—not for a moment—that it might have had something to do with the time, back when he was 15, that he had hacked into NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Flash forward a quarter of a century, and Frame is now the 42-year-old founder and CEO of Citizen App, the internet’s fastest-growing—and most controversial—crime-fighting mobile app. Turning any iPhone into a pocket-sized Bat Cave, it monitors 911 calls and keeps its 5 million active users notified of crimes, accidents, and other incidents in their neighborhoods, encouraging them to supplement these bulletins with their own personal videos. The app’s upgraded $19.99-a-month version connects them to so-called digital bodyguards (remote phone operators who can call 911 for them).
Frame’s scared-straight moment as a precocious hacker was the last time, he says, that he strayed from the straight and narrow. Nowadays, he says, he’s dedicated his life to Citizen App’s vainglorious mission statement: “Protect the world.”
The world, though, hasn’t decided if it wants Frame’s protection—if he’s hero or villain. He’s secured millions from investors and compiled a team of tech stars and the support of former Los Angeles Police Department chief William Bratton, who sits on Citizen’s board. But from its launch in 2017, Citizen has generated charges that, whatever Frame’s quixotic pretensions, the app instills paranoia in its subscribers and is helping destroy whatever comity remains within communities already divided by politics and the pandemic.
It’s a dynamic familiar to tech startups with lofty foundation principles.Remember when Google’s motto was “Don’t be evil”? Thanks to the company’s actual conduct, the slogan became such an embarrassing meme, Google quietly rescinded it. That’s not a pattern Frame is eager to replicate.
“We’ve never thought or talked about scaring people,” he insists. “We think and execute on keeping people safe. There are two things that scare people: one is knowing exactly what’s going on, and the other is not knowing what’s going on.”
But the manner in which Citizen mediates fear gives pause to crime and safety experts.
“Our study showed that fear of crime does not always equate with the levels of crime,” says Steven Richard Bishop, a professor at University College London and coauthor, with Oxford University’s Rafael Prieto Curiel, of the paper “Crime and Its Fear in Social Media.” Fear, Bishop says, “is based on a personal assessment of risk.” He goes on, “Reports of crime change this perception. When I was a boy, we never locked the back door of our home. Today, we would never dream of leaving the door unlocked, and yet the number of stranger murders is no higher. Yes, burglary rates have gone up nationally, but not in the area where I live. It is the reporting of the crimes that has changed our behavior.”
Frame calls in via Zoom from L.A.’s Westside, where he lives when he’s not in New York. Sitting in front of a virtual background of Japanese mountains, he wears a white T-shirt and a pair of glasses that could be Clark Kent’s. He’s guarded at first. “How did you know that?” he asks suspiciously when I inquire after his cat, Darlington, whom he’d mentioned in a previously published interview. Frame is a 40-is-the-new-30 type—thick dark hair, lean and vibrant-looking—the kind of tech bro you could imagine with a Pressed juice in hand and a 5 a.m. Peloton routine. He’s single, animal-loving, and not in a relationship because “right now my job is pretty much all consuming.” There is no Citizen office in L.A.; in fact, there isn’t much of a headquarters anywhere at this point—the company’s 170 employees have been working remotely since March 2020.
Last year, Citizen doubled its user sign-ups, currently at 10 million (half of whom are active on the app), including 1.5 million Angelenos. Incident reports based on real-time 911 calls are posted on the app by Citizen analysts using proprietary software called ProtectOS, alerting subscribers with a unique ding on their phones that sounds a bit like a muffled gunshot. Users are encouraged to supplement these reports by filming and adding videos to the thread (which are vetted by the app before going live). Citizen also features news segments, complete with interviews and reporting.
While there is potential for the app to expand into its own news network, Frame seems uninterested. “We focus on safety, but the byproduct of safety is news.” In a podcast earlier this year, he said, “A missing child is news to everyone except the missing child’s family. For them, it’s safety.”
But in practice, critics say, Citizen also provides civilians with the means to practice freelance vigilantism. Although the app wasn’t implicated in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black jogger who was cornered by three white men and shot to death in a Georgia neighborhood, the outlines of that case—individuals assessing a threat where none existed—have at least a rhyming similarity to Citizen. Indeed, in at least one instance, Frame himself went way overboard with his enthusiasm for justice.
After receiving a tip that an arsonist started the Palisades fire in L.A. last May, Frame wrote in a conversation with employees on Slack, “FIND THIS FUCK” and “LETS GET THIS GUY BEFORE MIDNIGHT HES GOING DOWN.” Frustrated that the LAPD hadn’t made an arrest, he posted the man’s name on the app along with a $10,000 bounty, which he later increased to $30,000.
The problem was, the man wasn’t an actual suspect, merely a person of interest who had been questioned and released by police. He had nothing to do with the fire, but Citizen named him repeatedly, which some employees saw as breaching Citizen’s policy of not releasing personal information, according to Vice. The subsequent media storm held Frame accountable for endangering the life of an innocent man.
“We’re always trying to balance speed with quality, and they’re always in contention anytime there’s a fire,” Frame says today. “And in that situation, you know, speed, unfortunately, was optimized over accuracy. So that was an unfortunate situation where the information was wrong. And we’ve since updated our policies.”
The latest bout of unsavory publicity came in October, when Mother Jones reported that two former Citizen employees said one of their colleagues attended the January 6 insurrection undercover and livestreamed it on the app. Frame denied that anyone was forced to attend, and a Citizen spokesperson released a statement saying that the employee attended of his own volition. Still, 1.4 million users engaged with Citizen during the four hours that rioters breached the Capitol—the app’s best daily performance at the time. Earlier, Citizen’s head of central operations, Lenny BeckRoda, had announced the company’s goal of generating $28 million in 2021, fueling speculation that the revenue target factored into the employee’s decision to livestream the riot.
This wasn’t the first time Frame appeared to encourage drama to goose Citizen’s metrics. During the Palisades-fire manhunt that he incited, Frame wrote to employees on Slack, “The more courage we have, the more signups we will have. go after bad guys, signups will skyrocket. period … we should catch a new bad guy EVERY DAY.” Eventually, Frame said, “these metrics will be great.” He wasn’t wrong. More than 40,000 watched the live feed of the manhunt, and sign-ups spiked substantially in the aftermath.
An app that encourages citizens to submit video of suspected crimes can create what amounts to a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Citizen is “monetizing our insecurity and our fears,” says Oxford’s Curiel. “In terms of business, it means having more users, but also having more crime, because the more crime that gets reported, the more their platform is successful. Suddenly you have a business that wants to make a profit out of insecurity, and their indicators [for success]—at least one of them— are going to be dependent on higher volumes of crime.”
Born in Henderson, Nevada, in 1979, Frame spent his formative years taking apart and putting together computers. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing open-source software. “The learning was infinite,” he says. “There was just so much to do that there were not enough hours in the day.”
School took up too much of that time, so Frame dropped out in tenth grade—the end of his formal education. At 15, he launched his first startup: an internet service provider. Eventually, his love of computers and open-source coding led him to hacking. It was the mid-’90s, and the internet was still mostly a wilderness. Frame, who had always been curious about UFOs, decided NASA would be the coolest place to go spelunking. It wasn’t the first illegal thing he’d done—he was using his Tandy, an old-school computer sold at Radio Shack, to print fake IDs. He likens his behavior to the “young entrepreneur kids” of today dealing Bitcoin in the school parking lot: harmless fun.
NASA and the FBI didn’t agree. After his arrest, Frame accepted a plea deal but remembers asking his attorney if he might still go to jail. Because the crime was relatively new territory, the judge had tremendous latitude, and even with the prosecution’s deal, anything could happen. “It was a very intense moment,” Frame says, “because I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What did I do?’ That was the scariest day of my life.” Frame walked with probation, community service, and the promise to show NASA the weaknesses in its security.
At 17, Frame moved to San Jose and used one of his fake IDs to get a job at Cisco in tech support.
Soon he was traveling the world with the company, establishing systems in Korea and Australia before launching his next endeavor, Ooma, a not-so-successful telecommunications startup. He began hanging out with other young techies, among them Napster’s Shawn Fanning, and briefly helped Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker in the early days of Facebook. He walked away with shares in the company that would turn into an eight-figure fortune.
In 2009, weary of the startup grind, he left Ooma and headed to L.A., where he enrolled in a screenwriting intensive run by producer Joan Scheckel. He had no intention of actually writing movies. “There are a lot of analogies between the filmmaking process and creating consumer technologies,” Frame says. “So I just got really focused on story structure.”
In 2016, when it was time for him to start his next company, Frame had five defining criteria: it had to be mission-oriented, consumer-based, mobile, network-driven, and unique. Then he thought of police scanners he’d first seen at Radio Shack when he was a teenager—how you could monitor danger in real time—and it dawned on him: pass that information directly to the consumer via an app optimized for mobile phones. A member of a community, he thought, should have the same access to what’s going on around them as a first responder. Within weeks, Citizen’s prototype, Vigilante, was born. Frame knew the name was provocative, but as a friend told him, controversy is better than being ignored.
Frame tapped his newfound screenwriting skills to frame Vigilante’s teaser video, which in retrospect was an encapsulation of exactly why so many people are wary of Citizen today: A young woman is followed by a shadowy figure in a New York City parking garage. Terrified, she calls 911, but the police are miles away. As the app broadcasts her predicament, a montage of hip-looking twentysomethings put down their ramen, race to the scene, and surround her just as her attacker has her where he wants her. The video made waves, racking up thousands of views in hours. Frame was elated by the response and dismissed the video’s critics. “They said it was too dangerous,” he says. “They said, ‘What if the person that shows up gets hurt?’ But for me, putting the vision into a story was a good idea. And we ended up getting thousands of requests.”
Shortly after Vigilante’s release, the New York Police Department issued a statement: “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cellphone.” Within months, Vigilante was banished from the Apple Store for breaking its user agreement to not expose app purchasers to risk of physical harm. Frame wasn’t deterred. He and his team quickly regrouped and, in 2017, rebranded under the less terrifying name Citizen.
Despite the negative publicity it generates, Citizen is credited with regularly locating missing children and animals. The week of my interview with Frame, a woman used the app to find her autistic son after 200,000 alerts were broadcast across New York City’s boroughs. It also has found favor among emergency-service providers. “We had a fire a few weeks ago—a one-alarm—and I thought, ‘OK, this is a typical fire,’” says Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter, public information officer for the San Francisco Fire Department. “But then I see on Citizen that there’s a person hanging out the window.” Baxter immediately dispatched rescue units to the scene. He credits Citizen’s video with more accurately reflecting the nature of the emergency.
A 2020 study by Johns Hopkins University found that, on average, patients referred by Citizen alerts arrived 12.9 minutes earlier at hospitals than those referred by standard emergency radio notification. “ER surgeons use Citizen because they say, ‘OK, in the next ten minutes, this person is going to arrive,’ ” Frame says.
Frame says that Citizen has other products in the works but won’t share details. There is speculation that the company is planning to launch its own on-demand security force, and leaked internal emails suggest it is very much in development. The private security firms Securitas and Los Angeles Professional Security are said to be involved in the plans as partners. (Both companies declined to comment.) A Citizen spokesperson confirmed that a test of the concept was run in L.A. in May.
Currently, Citizen’s only paid feature, at $19.99 a month, is Protect, its digital bodyguard service. Subscribers are monitored remotely around the clock by human agents who coordinate emergency services if needed. Smaller-bore versions of the concept, such as General Motors’s OnStar and other remote emergency-monitoring systems, have been in mostly uncontroversial use for years. What Citizen hopes to bring to the space is a dramatic upscaling, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and a user base accustomed to posting video and commentary to social media.
Given its fraught relationship with some first responders, Frame says Citizen isn’t looking to share its technology or user information with police departments. “We’re not the police,” he says. “The police and Citizen have the same goal, which is safety, but we go about it in very different ways.”
It is this codependence of Citizen’s police-like functions with the actual police that concerns experts like Curiel. “The police are a public service,” he says. “If they do something wrong, they have to be held accountable. We are giving a private company the right to choose what gets posted and doesn’t. Imagine [Citizen] starts posting only information about certain races, certain genders, certain ages. There are thousands of crimes—which ones get posted, why, and who decides?”
Adds Bishop, “Citizen’s method of collecting data is open to those who wish to paint a particular picture, and so bias will become a feature. This bias can create tensions, which then lead to outcomes that far outweigh the severity of petty crimes. Our justice system is based on the idea that we should let 100 guilty people go free rather than convict a single innocent person, and yet profiling does not take this into account.”
Like every tech startup bro before him, Frame dismisses the naysaying as so much negative noise. “Let’s say, hypothetically—and this is pretty implausible—but let’s say Citizen made the world a safe place, and we went out of business. That would be the most spectacular way to fail.”
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