I know we’ve had a lot of dystopian moments recently, but millionaires personally deploying their apps to hunt down houseless people falsely accused of starting wildfires spreading in a drought-stricken landscape is really up there. And that’s exactly what happened this week, according to new reporting from the Verge.
Citizen, an app that sends out safety alerts, sent a notification to users in the Los Angeles area with a photograph of a man the app said was a suspect in starting the Palisades Fire on Sunday. It offered $30,000 in reward money for anyone who provided information that led to his arrest. The man was captured by police Sunday evening, but he was released after the authorities determined that there was no conclusive evidence that he was involved. (Another unhoused man was later arrested and charged with starting the fire.) Since city and county officials had asked residents to download Citizen to help the city track the spread of covid-19, and an estimated 860,000 saw the photo of the falsely accused man.
Following the incident, Citizen said in a statement that the company was “actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again” and that the incident “was a mistake we are taking very seriously.” But Slack records reviewed by the Verge show that Citizen’s CEO, Andrew Frame, personally encouraged the manhunt as an exercise of the app’s powers and offered $10,000 of his own money to catch an arsonist “as a test.” (The reward was later raised.)