Citing leaked internal chats logs of the night Citizen falsely accused a California man of intentionally setting a wildfire, Motherboard on Thursday offered readers an inside look into the company’s self-inflicted blunder, even as it was blindly executed, logs show, at the emphatic direction of its chief executive, Andrew Frame.
“Citizen had gotten a tip that the wildfire was started by an arsonist, and Frame had decided earlier in the night that the fire was a huge opportunity,” according to Motherboard, which quoted Frame—yes, his real name—telling employees in Slack, “FIND THIS FUCK.” The company eventually offered a $30,000 reward to the user who tracked him down—more than 860,000 of whom now had his picture, according to leaked details that were previously reported and corroborated by Motherboard.
The man was briefly detained but cleared by authorities. Another person was arrested for the crime.
The seven-hour manhunt in Los Angeles was conducted “under the increasingly frantic direction of Frame,” Motherboard says, pointing to orders by Frame to “Notify all of la” and “GET THIS GUY BEFORE MIDNIGHT.” Sources from the company and close to its founder told reporters, Motherboard said, that the incident was “characterized by Frame as a risk, a test, and experiment, even though it potentially put the person they named in danger.”
Citizen was launched in 2016 by Frame, a programmer/early Facebook adviser, under the name Vigilate, a term that literally means enforcing the law without “the legal authority to do so.” NYPD officials denounced it, warning ominously that users who ran toward crime would likely be confused for criminals. Apple quickly banned it—for a while. Months later, it was back with a toned-down name. Its explicit call for users to get involved with crime was replaced with softer language about alerting them to danger. Relying heavily on the work of volunteer police scanner enthusiasts, Citizen also, for a time, revoked users’ ability to self-report incidents, reintroducing the feature later in a more limited capacity.
Motherboard’s sprawling exposé—which goes on to describes pressure on employees to keep users inundated with crime alerts to push $20 livestream subscriptions—can be read in its entirety here.