App for Rescuing Refugees at Sea Revealed to Be PR Ploy

It sounded good at the time but the iSEA App, developed by a branch of a Singapore ad agency to crowdsource the search for migrants in Mediterranean Sea, turned out to be fake.

Migrants arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos, Nov. 1, 2015.
Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Many media outlets reported last week on an app called iSEA, designed to use crowdsourcing to help rescue refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.

The idea was that thousands of people would search the Mediterranean for refugee boats in distress and report on their location to the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, whose boats would be dispatched to help them. There was only one problem with the app: It was a total fake, and Apple removed it from its App Store after security investigators and other experts revealed that there was nothing behind it.

MOAS is the initiative of Christopher Catrambone, an American multimillionaire who purchased rescue ships, two commercial drones and two inflatable craft to be used to help the refugees, from Africa and the Middle East. According to various reports, the organization has rescued over 14,000 refugees.

The iSEA App was developed for that organization by Grey for Good, a department of the Grey Group advertising agency in Singapore. With the app is a website and a moving video clip, describing the deaths of over 5,300 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean. With dramatic violin music in the background, the narrator says that the entire world is eager to help, but doesn’t know how, and asks what would happen if we could give billions of people the power to see the sea in its entirety and to save lives.

According to its creators, “The app captures a satellite image of the sea and slices it up into thousands of smaller plots. Each plot is then assigned to different users. They can view the plot through the app and check if they see any boat in distress.”

The idea sounds great, and in the era of crowdsourcing it also sounds amazingly logical. But some people smelled a rat. One of them was @SwiftOnSecurity, the Taylor Swift account of a security investigator, which is very popular on Twitter. In a series of tweets from SwiftOnSecurity and other developers, they proved that in effect the iSEA App is an advertising ploy entirely unrelated to the stated important objective.

“Tried it, the app is completely non-functional. It’s a marketing stunt for the developer to get press articles,” according to the account. “There’s no declaration of a copyright on the infrastructure or the API, it doesn’t explain the source of the satellite pictures and how they are updated. Most journalists would not have realized it’s a fraud.”

Israeli internet programmer Ran Bar-Zik, who has written on the subject, said that today there are more than enough advanced tools for automatic identification, so there isn’t necessarily any need for crowdsourcing.

Matt Burke, another developer who examined the communication between the app and the server, discovered that in effect, it offers the users a static photo (apparently a single image) that was altered on Photoshop. He said that it also communicates with the API of Google Maps, but it’s not clear why that’s a good thing, because the pictures there are several months or years old.

Why did was iSEA created? Perhaps not only for the newspaper headlines. A surfer named Malika Rodrigues noticed that it was nominated in the Cannes Lions award show advertising competition. As mentioned, the app that was available on the iPhone has been removed from Apple’s App Store.

“Technology questions are not our area of expertise,” said MOAS spokeswoman Anne Kennedy. She referred us to Grey for Good, the developers of the app, who still have not responded to multiple requests for comment. Kennedy herself has yet to answer additional questions.

Grey posted the following notice: “The iSEA App is currently in a testing mode. At this time it is loading and mapping satellite images to its GPS coordinates and users are able to report an anomaly in their plot of sea. The report function is sending out an alert whenever a user flags something in the plot of sea they are watching. During this testing period, the satellite images available are not in real-time.

"Grey for Good are still working to optimize the technology, but we are proud of what we have achieved so far and are grateful to all those who have shown interest in helping to improve the app.”