With a tap of the screen, a smartphone can quickly deliver most of our basic desires—food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, sex.
Citizen founder Andrew Frame, a former hacker who earned tens of millions moonlighting for a few days at fledgling Facebook, thinks he can add to our phones one more essential human need—personal safety. “We’re all walking around with supercomputers in our pockets that have location technology and live video capabilities,” says Frame. “There must be something more we can do.”
At his startup’s unlisted headquarters in New York City’s Little Italy, young employees sip coffee from Citizen-branded mugs and watch chaos and crime unfold across America. A child is abducted in Philadelphia; a cop car hits a 15-year-old in Baltimore; there’s a stabbing in Los Angeles, a fire in New York.
Citizen’s offices are crammed with desks stacked high with wide-screen monitors and feel like a cross between an air-traffic-control room and a Wall Street trading floor. Analysts in their 20s and early 30s listen to buzzing audio clips through clamshell headphones, their eyes bolted to streaming text chats and flashing city maps. Fingers fly across keys as they toggle between tragedies, blast out safety alerts, share videos and post incident updates to Citizen users who are physically near the morning’s calamities.
“We’ve opened up all this 911 data and given it to the people,” says Frame, who, tall and trim, wearing a baseball cap and a broken-in blue plaid shirt, looks a decade younger than his 39 years. “Before this, you had to go to the police academy to access real-time crime or be a firefighter to get access to fires. The people deserve to have this information too—in real time.”
According to its official blog, Citizen has helped find missing people, rescue abducted children, alert residents to building fires and let users avoid active robberies, armed suspects and shoot-outs. Emergency room doctors use Citizen to anticipate and prepare for incoming patients. News organisations use it to scout breaking stories. Community groups check it to get a quick pulse of problems flaring up in the neighbourhood.
Currently operating in just five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco), Citizen has more than 1 million active users. Each week TV news broadcasts more than 100 videos recorded by Citizen users. The company, which launched in 2016 as a crime-fighting tool called Vigilante and was quickly banned by Apple because of safety concerns, now consistently ranks in the top ten of all news apps in the App Store, often higher than CNN, Buzzfeed, the New York Times
and Google News. It averages a 4.7 rating (out of 5) from 22,000-plus reviews.
Citizen is not alone in the safety space. San Francisco-based neighbourhood social network Nextdoor, currently valued at $2.1 billion, has a crime and safety category where members can report crimes and suspicious activity. Smart doorbell company, Ring, which Amazon acquired for $1 billion last year, offers a neighbourhood watch feature allowing users and law enforcement to post news and warnings.
Despite having no revenue, Citizen has raised $40 million from influential venture firms like Sequoia Capital, Founders Fund, Slow Ventures, 8VC, Kapor Capital and Lux Capital. Celebrity investors like Drake, LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Scooter Braun and Mike Judge (the creator of HBO’s Silicon Valley
) have bought in, too. “We were excited by the combination of transparency, mission and a passionate founder who knows how to execute,” says former Slow Ventures partner Scott Marlette. “It’s not the app you’re going to open when you’re bored,” says Jake Medwell, a founding partner at 8VC. “But you’re going to want it on your phone to know you’re protected.”
Top talent is flocking to the firm. Keith Peiris, Citizen’s head of product, was formerly a product lead at Instagram. Engineering boss Wiktor Macura was an engineering manager at Square. Citizen’s scale expert, Praveen Arichandran, was the head of growth at Tesla. Darrell Stone, who now runs the core Citizen app, recently helped manage Uber’s carpooling service. Bill Bratton, who as New York’s police commissioner was against the app when it went by the name Vigilante, has just joined Frame’s board.
Sequoia Capital partner Mike Vernal saw Citizen’s potential after a close call. During a trip to New York, he saw a Citizen alert about a stabbing that had just occurred a few hundred feet from his hotel on Columbus Circle. His wife was heading out to buy milk for their young son, and he frantically messaged her about the threat. “Knowing about this event before the police showed up just felt so valuable,” Vernal says. “There aren’t many apps that can get to a billion-plus users. After the experience in New York, I convinced myself that this is something that could get to a billion.” *****
Mighty miles south of Citizen’s headquarters, in Philadelphia, a 911 dispatcher radios police about a shotgun-wielding man in West Philly. One of Citizen’s R1 scanners, a small, squat black box that instantly captures the 911 report, digitises the audio and uploads it to the cloud.
Citizen gets all its info by eavesdropping on the same public radio transmissions that hobbyists, journalists and criminals have monitored for decades. It operates without help—or permission—from authorities. The R1 radio, a core of Citizen’s proprietary tech, acts as a supercharged police scanner, simultaneously monitoring and recording up to 900 public radio channels across a city’s first-responder network: State and local police, fire and EMS, transit and airport security. Each day Citizen’s network of 20 R1s records more than 2,000 hours of radio transmissions. The small size, high efficiency and wide range of the R1 lets Citizen expand into a new city without investing in new real estate or a local team. Meaning Citizen covers all of Baltimore with a device not much larger than a can of Old Bay.
Once Philly’s R1 digitises the report of the man with the shotgun, Citizen’s custom-built AI promptly processes the radio clip, cutting static and dead air, transcribing the audio, pulling out key words (male, shotgun, Wanamaker Street) and pinning to a digital street map a feverish red dot where the man was last seen. From there a communication analyst takes over, listening to the 911 dispatch, writing a short notification and sending it to Citizen app users within a quarter-mile of the incident (different events have different warning radiuses: say, a half-mile for a fire, an entire city for a terror threat). Citizen employs 38 analysts who, to provide around-the-clock coverage, work in three eight-hour shifts. Thanks to Citizen’s AI software, on a normal shift, a single person can cover multiple cities.
Wary of privacy invasion—and lawsuits—Citizen publishes only safety threats. Suspicious people reports, medical issues, suicides or domestic disturbances aren’t published, and a human vets every post. The alerts contain a brief description, exact address and distance from the user. With a tap, the notification expands to a street map, more detail, plus user comments. Through the app, you can explore recent emergencies citywide, which are marked by bright red dots. On a given day, for instance, New York’s map looks like it has measles.
If you are close enough to an incident, a record button appears on your phone, letting you shoot and post a live video of the action. Frame says Citizen employees review all content before it hits the platform to protect privacy, avoid pranks and prevent the live broadcasting of murders and violence (a recurring problem for Facebook and YouTube). Users aren’t paid for videos, nor are videos gamified with rankings or “likes”.
Fans see Citizen as way to monitor neighbourhood safety. Others believe the live video feature can help protect both suspects and police. “It allows communities and law enforcement to have a more transparent, accountable and trusting relationship—and that can be transformative,” says Ben Jealous, ex-chief of the NAACP and currently a Kapor Capital partner who invested in Citizen.
For critics, it’s a voyeuristic, anxiety-inducing fear app that can make even the safest city seem like it’s engulfed in a crime wave. Moreover, if used the wrong way, the platform could encourage users to put themselves in peril.
“There’s no disclaimer to say some of the stuff on the app might be unfounded, and there’s no follow-up saying that an alert was a false alarm,” says Justin Brannan, a New York City councilman who’s penned an op-ed critical of the app. “Not only does it build a sense of needless anxiety and fear, but they don’t correct it either. It’s reckless.”
In Philadelphia, the R1 scanner picks up a call that Philly police have the suspects, now three men, surrounded in a house. Citizen updates its users. Soon the police capture the men and recover the shotgun. An analyst sends an all-clear and switches focus to a car crash in Baltimore.
“We hypothesised that transparency and information would help,” Frame says. “We were told that we were crazy, that this was reckless and possibly destructive, and we took the risk.” *****
For Andrew Frame, Citizen is the culmination of the two forces that shaped his life: Technology, where he’s been a serial entrepreneur, and law enforcement, where he’s been a target.
On a spring morning in 1997 in Las Vegas, Frame, then 17 and running an internet service provider, was abruptly awakened by armed FBI. His first thought was that his roommate had done something very wrong. However, when Frame, hands cuffed behind his back and wearing only checkered boxer shorts, realised the cops were searching the house for computers, he knew he was their quarry. The feds had finally found him.
Raised in Henderson, Nevada, in a household where money was always a problem, Frame saw computers as an escape. At the age of 12 he persuaded his mother to cash saving bonds intended for his college tuition to buy a floor model Tandy computer at Radio Shack. “If you can’t afford a computer, you buy a Tandy,” Frame says with a chuckle. Frame built out his system using open source Linux, learning firsthand how computers and the internet worked. Soon he was also spending all night in chat rooms learning how to hack.
At 14, Frame used the Tandy to make a fake ID and got a job telemarketing dance CDs. He dropped out of tenth grade to run his ISP by day and hack by night. “I got to the point where I could basically get into anything.” Fascinated with UFOs, he soon breached two major systems, called Lima and Bean, at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Thanks to another fake ID and a padded résumé, Frame scored a job in 1997 at Cisco as a systems engineer. It was a dream—until his past turned it into a nightmare.
The raid was part of an exhaustive two-year investigation into the Nasa hack. “Friends and relatives would call me and say, ‘Dude, the FBI just came to my house—what did you do?’” Based on a friend’s recommendation, Frame hired a Las Vegas criminal lawyer named John Spilotro, who often took on juvenile cases pro bono. Over the next two years, Frame flew between his Silicon Valley job and his lawyer’s Vegas office trying to negotiate a deal. “It was like I was dying and had a year left to live,” Frame says. “I didn’t know how much longer I’d be free.”
His fate was far from certain. On the one hand, he was being charged as a minor and hadn’t stolen any information. On the other, Nasa was claiming that he caused millions of dollars of damage and that they had found his digital fingerprints on the International Space Station and the Mars Pathfinder. “He was like a 5-year-old kid who snuck into FAO Schwarz just to look around,” Spilotro says. “But he could have been facing a ton of time. More than I wanted to count.”
In the end, the judge handed down a Catch Me If You Can
ruling: No jail time, a $25,000 fine and 100 hours of community service and five years’ probation—on the condition that he showed Nasa all the vulnerabilities in their Jet Propulsion network. “He caught the government with its pants down,” Spilotro says. “The beauty of it was that he pulled them back up for them.”
Legal threat over, he worked two years at a networking startup called Procket and then, in 2004, launched Ooma, a company that offered hardware to let people make free phone calls over the internet. It was ill-timed. Companies like Skype were already allowing anyone to make free calls over the web, no special hardware needed. “I was so desperate to start a company that I would do any dumb idea. I had founderitis,” Frame says.
Around this time Frame started hanging out with a guy he had met online during his internet chat room days, Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning. Soon Frame was spending time with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, informally helping a nascent Facebook set up network architecture—in the process scoring Facebook shares that grew into a life-changing fortune. Frame won’t comment on exact numbers but acknowledges that he made eight figures for a couple weeks of work.
But as Facebook surged, Ooma struggled. Frame was battling entrenched giants like AT&T and Verizon over the shrinking landline market. In 2009, burnt-out and exhausted, Frame brought in Eric Stang to replace him as CEO (Stang still runs Ooma, which trades on the NYSE with a $219 million market cap). “Tech suddenly became more about money than innovation,” Frame says. “I became pretty disillusioned and left.” He fled to Los Angeles where he enrolled in an intensive six-month film programme with the Hollywood producer Joan Schekel and penned screenplays. “I wasn’t under the radar. I went completely off it.” *****
A young woman walks alone down a dark New York street. She notices a hooded man behind her. She dials 911. The police are radioed but are miles away. Simultaneously, nearby cellphones light up with an alert of a reported assault under way. Locals rush to the scene in cars, on bikes, some sprinting. The hooded man slams the victim to the pavement—just as the neighbours arrive, iPhones out and recording, stopping the attack and surrounding the criminal until the police arrive.
That was the plot Frame wrote for a splashy video that would announce to the world his stealth company, then called Vigilante. Despite his pledge to abandon tech, the rise of smartphones and their network potential slowly pulled Frame back into the game. He recruited a few engineers and invested $300,000 to launch an incubator called SP0N to explore promising ideas.
The spark for Citizen came to Frame in 2015 while looking at the backs of former tenements in Lower Manhattan. He thought about the modern, invisible signals darting through the 19th-century buildings. Wireless calls, Wi-Fi, police radio. What if there was a way for smartphones to capture emergency calls? He ran inside and told his engineers—they had a prototype in a week.
He named the project Vigilante, liking its edgy feel. It was a giant mistake. “To a well-intended young person in tech it means Batman,” says Kapor Capital’s Ben Jealous, who initially passed on investing because of the name. “But in Florida, it might conjure images of George Zimmerman.”
Vigilante and its sizzle video debuted on October 25, 2016. Nobody noticed. To cheer up his team, Frame treated everyone to dinner at Forlini’s. “The mood couldn’t have been more down, because nothing was happening,” Frame says. Between the antipasti and pasta course, everything changed. “Someone checked the video and noticed the views had gone from around 300 to over 27,000. Ten minutes later, it had 54,000.” The next morning Vigilante was trending on Reddit.
Vigilante’s viral video attracted the attention of Apple and the NYPD. “I was opposed to it,” former Commissioner Bratton says. “I thought the crime maps would scare people and encourage others to interfere with investigations.” A few days after launch, Apple called Frame. Vigilante violated rule 1.4.5: “Apps should not urge customers to participate in activities (like bets, challenges, etc) or use their devices in a way that risks physical harm to themselves or others.” Frame filibustered for three hours, arguing he was running a safety tool, not a crime-fighting app—but the Vigilante name and video were working against him. Apple banned Vigilante. Growth froze.
Frame’s friend Dave Morin, a partner at Slow Ventures, an early Facebook exec and a co-founder of the social network Path, had previously worked at Apple, and he lobbied CEO Tim Cook and others on Vigilante’s behalf. “This app was putting power in the hands of citizens to create a better policing network. What could be better for democracy?” Morin says. “It’s all about power to the people, and that was Apple’s original mission.”
For months, Frame grappled with a fix, sending new presentations to Apple every week. He changed the name to Citizen and shifted the marketing message from crime fighting to safety awareness. After months of negotiations, Apple reinstated the app in March 2017. “Everyone thinks we changed the app, but we really didn’t—we always had warnings saying stay back and keep yourself safe,” Frame says. “The name Vigilante was just a poor choice.”
Citizen must now figure out another pressing problem: How will the ad-free platform make money? Frame won’t share specifics. Sources in the company hint at a model in which Citizen charges universities, airports, stadiums and other places with lots of people to allow authorities to send notifications to users—either to blast out emergency instructions or quell panic after a false alarm. There’s also the potential to let users message the officials about safety concerns, a mobile-powered “See Something, Say Something.”
Investors note that billions of dollars are spent every year on security. If Citizen hit massive scale, it could be an essential addition to current safety systems and grow into a lucrative, utility-like business. Former NYPD Commissioner Bratton says that many people, fearing that authorities will track their location and habits, will never download an official law enforcement app. He’s betting that Citizen, as a trusted, independent app, can be a powerful tool for emergency services to quickly and efficiently deliver critical information to the public. “Better-informed citizens make for better-informed police,” Bratton says.
A new Citizen version is set to debut this fall. Frame is vague on details but says Citizen will address criticism that the app causes unneeded anxiety. He’s also exploring ways for people to reach nearby users or community groups for issues that don’t require emergency responders.
While he’s predictably coy on his business model, Frame promises that Citizen won’t make money off ads or sharing user information. “We will never earn revenue or build our business by selling personal data. Our entire business is built to protect users, and that includes protecting their privacy.” It’s a far cry from the former teenage hacker who once faced prison time for breaking into government systems. “When the judge gave me probation, it was like I was cured of a terminal illness,” Frame says. “After that, I won’t even run a stop sign.”