Citizen uses SafePass to partner with LA and track coronavirus cases.
The city of Los Angeles recently announced it would partner with the well-known crime reporting app, Citizen, in order to make use of its SafePass to track coronavirus symptoms and alert users to nearby test sites. SafePass was developed by Citizen to send alerts when users may have been exposed to COVID-19 and share diagnostic information.
“The County’s partnership with SafePass is a valuable tool to help slow the spread of COVID-19 throughout the region,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. “The success of the SafePass app relies on a continued sense of community impact among our residents by asking individuals to do their part to protect themselves and their neighbors.”
Citizen was, at one time, Vigilante, but in November 2016, it was booted from the Apple App Store following concerns it would encourage vigilantism through racial profiling or violent responses. At the time, Apple indicated the app would be booted due to “a violation of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, with concerns centered around user safety.” In March 2017, however, the company reentered the market as Citizen. It received $12 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and expanded to San Francisco. Founder Andrew Frame said, “The name has changed, but the mission has not.”
New York Police Department (NYPD) Community Manager Dennis Prince Mapp said of a potential partnership between Citizen and law enforcement, “We’re trying to unite [local community members and the police] and show that we’re all human. We’re trying to humanize the app and trying to humanize the NYPD.”
A member of a nonprofit working with Citizen indicated in an email to the Los Angeles Mayor’s office, “I’m reaching out to you because Citizen is launching in Los Angeles in just a few weeks and I think that this is a great opportunity for our community to re-imagine safety with Citizen.”
SafePass seems to fit the bill as a viable connection between the company’s mission and law enforcement’s efforts to protect public safety. However, there are some clear privacy concerns that emerge upon closer review of how Citizen’s technology would utilize “GPS location data, Bluetooth low energy, WiFi fingerprinting, and Cell Tower triangulation in a rich feature set providing highly accurate contact proximity and duration data.” Both Citizen and LA County insist the datasets built from this program will “remain anonymized,” but some consumer advocates remain skeptical.
A Citizen spokesperson said, “We will retain your Bluetooth data, GPS location data and identity verification information for 30 days from collection on a rolling basis, and all other personal information for the period necessary to fulfill the purposes outlined in this policy and to support other Citizen app features you might use, unless a longer retention period is required or permitted by law, or an individual requests that we delete information about them.”
The company also indicated, “When a user submits their COVID-19 diagnosis to us to enable tracing, we may request a copy of the user’s government-issued ID or use other means to verify the user’s identity to protect our community against platform abuse and fraud. We will delete your identity verification information within 30 days from collection.”
Given Citizen’s history of being kicked off Apple just days after launching as Vigilante, however, it seems the recent partnership and collection of consumer data is both odd and dangerous. Perhaps SafePass will allow the company to redeem itself and prove to be more reliable than it seems on the surface, but only time will tell.