Workers At Crime-Watch App Citizen Are Unionizing

On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Sixty-nine workers at the vigilante crime-watch app, Citizen, are unionizing with the Communications Workers of America. 

The workers petitioned for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board on September 22, and are waiting for approval to conduct a union election, according to the National Labor Relations Board filing. They are calling their union the Citizen Central Operations Union. A spokesperson for Citizen told Motherboard that the company does not support the unionization effort.

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Citizen is a popular social network that sends news alerts to users about crime in their neighborhoods and allows them to broadcast news and receive live updates about ongoing reports. In May, Motherboard reported that the app had offered a $30,000 bounty against a man it had falsely accused of igniting the Palisades Wildfire in Los Angeles, and had live-streamed a city-wide manhunt for the person over the course of several hours. Motherboard obtained a cache of internal Slack messages from that incident, which showed CEO Andrew Frame personally offering to fund the bounty, pushing employees to announce the bounty, and demanding that employees and their users “find this fuck,” referring to an arson suspect who was later cleared of any wrongdoing. Notes from an all-hands meeting following that incident showed that many Citizen employees were uncomfortable with Frame’s quest to find that suspect.

Citizen has also been widely criticized for encouraging vigilantism and because users disproportionately report people of color and unhoused people as being suspicious. In May, a Citizen employee told Motherboard that a portion of its userbase is “insanely racist.” The company has also tested on-demand private security forces in the city. 

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A source familiar with the unionization effort told Motherboard the push gained momentum after the Palisades bounty incident. The source described job insecurity inside Citizen that comes from raising concerns about Citizen’s behavior internally as a reason for starting a union.

They also pointed to wage differences between different parts of the company, and the lack of a formal path to grow inside Citizen.

Citizen employs office workers who listen and summarize to police scanner audio and then input police reports as “incidents” into the app. Some of these office jobs are now being filled by overseas labor, which has made Citizen employees based in the U.S. nervous about losing their jobs, according to previous Motherboard reporting.

“Citizen invents and builds technology to make the world safer. Every day, Citizen technology helps people evacuate building fires, galvanizes hyperlocal communities to find kidnapped and missing children, and empowers people with life-saving situational awareness in the face of natural disasters,” a spokesperson for Citizen told Motherboard.

“Over the last two weeks alone, the Citizen community, powered by Citizen technology, has come together to successfully find five missing kids,” they continued. “We support our mission-driven high-performance team with above market compensation, full benefits, stock options, and career opportunities for all employees, and will continue to take steps to improve on any support offerings that may be needed. As a dynamic, high-growth, and innovative company leveraging technology in moments of crisis, we are best positioned to address challenges and grow together as a Citizen team without meddling from an outside union.”

The app has a search function that allows users to search for incidents in their area. Users can upload photos and videos and comment on “incidents.” 

The union drive arrives amid a wave of unionization efforts in the tech industry, including at Google, Amazon, Kickstarter, Glitch, and MapBox. Some of these efforts have been motivated by ethical concerns workers have related to the products and services offered by tech companies. 

The Communications Workers of America Local 1, which represents AT&T and Verizon workers in New York City, declined to comment.