Inside Citizen, the App That Asks You to Report on Crimes

Anthony Goblirsch’s mom is driving him to the evacuation zone. A gas leak has sprung up in the area, and mother and son are zipping to the scene in the family’s SUV, a black GMC Denali.

Hope sits half cross-legged, her right foot working the pedals while her left foot stays tucked against her right thigh. Anthony is in the back, next to the vacant car seat meant for his younger sister, listening to a police scanner and thumbing a map on Hope’s smartphone as he feeds her driving directions. Anthony is using his mother’s phone because he’s only 12 years old. He has to wait until he’s a little older before he gets his own.

Anthony is a thin white kid with straight brown hair, his nose and cheeks splotched with freckles. His shirt bears the logo of the local youth gymnastics program he belonged to before everything got canceled. It’s late February 2020, just a couple short weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic will grind the world to a halt.

Anthony remembers something as they drive: “Oh, Mom, we need to feed my beetles today.”

“I just fed your beetles,” Hope says.

“OK, awesome, thanks Mom, you’re the best.” Anthony shifts his attention back to the scanner as some chatter comes across the line. More fire units are en route to the gas leak.

They’re driving through the suburbs of San Mateo, just south of San Francisco. Anthony first heard the call about the gas leak through the scanner app on Hope’s computer, which he monitors regularly. That’s when the pair hopped in the SUV. By now, officials have ordered a local preschool to evacuate. People in the surrounding buildings have been told to shelter in place.

When they arrive, the intersection next to the school is blocked by a fire engine. Anthony correctly identifies it as truck 23 from San Mateo Consolidated Fire Department. Hope takes the next left and stops the car in the street. “I’m gonna let you out here, buddy,” she says. “OK, good luck!”

Anthony bounds out of the vehicle, his mom’s phone in hand. The heels of his shoes are squished beneath his feet, flattened in his rush to leave the house. Hope rolls away as Anthony attaches the phone to a lightweight tripod, his quick and precise movements displaying the evidence of a practiced hand.

Anthony moves toward the commotion, holding the tripod out in front of him. He taps a button on the screen, and the camera starts broadcasting the scene live onto the internet. He starts talking. “Anthony G., reporting live at a large gas leak which evacuated a school …”

A few minutes later, a woman approaches Anthony and asks what’s happening. He gives her a rapid-fire recap of everything he knows about the situation: the gas leak, the evacuation, the orders for locals to stay indoors, which first-response units have arrived so far.

She stares at him. “Wow. We got a little reporter here.”

“Yeah! Thanks!” Anthony turns back to the camera and continues his narration.

The woman’s brow furrows. “That’s scary,” she says as she walks away, throwing a glance back at Anthony as she goes.

Her concern is justified. Anthony is filming with Citizen, an app that alerts its users to nearby emergency incidents and lets them livestream from the scene. Anthony has filmed it all: car crashes, home invasions, police pursuits, and, unwittingly, the aftermath of a suicide. In the year that Anthony has been uploading to Citizen, he’s filmed hundreds of these videos: 675 to be exact.

www.wired.com

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