Safety app advertised to students but gives platform to uncorroborated reports

The Wildfire safety app sent a mass invitation for students to join earlier this month but is not endorsed by University

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The app is not endorsed by the University's safety plan, but an invitation to join was sent to student emails this month. Courtesy Wildfire

This semester, University students have received emails promoting the LiveSafe and Wildfire safety apps, but only the LiveSafe app is endorsed for student use by University safety officials. LiveSafe facilitates emergency communication between businesses or universities and their staff or students in the form of reporting channels and emergency alerts, while Wildfire acts as a campus-wide social network where students report incidents to the community as a whole in real time.

Wildfire

University students received emails this month — as well as Aug. 16 of 2017 — from the mobile app Wildfire inviting them to sign up for the University’s Wildfire community. However, the app is not endorsed as part of the University’s safety plan. Neither the University nor Wildfire have addressed how the app acquired student emails to send a mass invitation to the student body.

Wildfire is different from the University Alert system in that the safety posts on the app are often uncorroborated before they are sent out, which leaves room for incorrect or completely false reporting of incidents.

In the University’s Wildfire community, there has already been at least one instance of false reporting that gained significant traction.

About a week before Oct. 23 according to the app’s time stamp, an account under the name “UVAStudentCouncil” — which was confirmed by President Ellie Brasacchio to be unaffiliated with the University’s Student Council — falsely reported a wild bear sighting near the Rotunda. The post got 905 views, 25 upvotes and 45 shares to outside sources.

“To our knowledge we do not have an account on that app, and we don't know who is under that username,” Brasacchio said. “We are trying to get that name taken down.”

Some time over the course of Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, the same “UVAStudentCouncil” account promised to deliver a prize to the first student who “donated” candy by leaving it in a first-year suite with their student ID or name attached. It is unclear whether any students participated.

The post reporting the wild bear is no longer visible. However, the candy-related post remains fully accessible.

The app, initially launched in the fall of 2016, is meant to be “a much more effective way to communicate with the people right around you in real-time,” according to its website.

“The University has not endorsed the Wildfire app, nor can we guarantee its validity,” said Megan Lowe, assistant vice president and chief of staff at the University. “The University was not involved in setting up the Wildfire app community at U.Va.”

Wildfire also doubles as a campus-specific social network, as the app is being implemented on college campuses in its early phases. When students want to alert others of a potential threat, they use the “safety” label on their message. Outside of this component, there are other labels including “chatter,” “events,” “buy/sell,” “memes” and “student problems.” Student posts on Wildfire have ranged in topic from laundry to schoolwork to dogs.

Wildfire also advertised to students via email in 2017. The earliest visible safety post is from 115 weeks ago — the week of the white supremacist Unite the Right rallies of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. The post shows a screenshot of a Snapchat photo of a man being arrested, along with a caption describing him as the man “driving the car crashing into people.” 

James Fields was arrested Aug. 12, 2017 after driving his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors, killing Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer. Fields was later found guilty of one count of first-degree murder, five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, one count of hit and run and three counts of malicious wounding. A state court sentenced Fields to life in prison plus 419 years.

LiveSafe

The University began its partnership with LiveSafe in June 2019 and has been advertising it to students through both orientation materials and emails about emergency alerts and preparedness. Lowe elaborated on the safety and security alert structure that the LiveSafe App has joined.

“The University uses multiple systems to quickly make community members aware of a threat and steps to take to stay safe,” Lowe said. “These include UVA Alerts … LED and LCD screens in classrooms and public spaces, desktop notifications … and social media posts on Twitter. A mobile safety app is just one component in the University’s emergency management system.”

LiveSafe is a risk intelligence platform based in Arlington, Va. that “enables two-way communications between employees and an organization’s security department and other risk management entities,” according to the LiveSafe website

The University’s LiveSafe platform connects users to UVA Alerts, SafeWalk, anonymous reporting services, late night transportation services and emergency resources including Dean on Call and the Suicide Hotline.

As of Wednesday, there were 1,939 registered users in the University’s LiveSafe, which is open to students, faculty, staff and members of the public. There have been 395 SafeWalks since the partnership was launched. The feature allows friends and family to monitor users’ locations via a real-time map as they walk to a new location.

“We are still in the early stages of adoption on Grounds,” Lowe said. “The SafeWalk feature is already popular with students, especially in the late hours. We continue to raise awareness about the availability of the app and to solicit feedback from the University community.”

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