Image: MOAS

“I Sea” billed itself as an app that would “empower the billions of us with smart devices” to do something about the thousands of migrants that have already drowned in the Mediterranean. For the last few days, Mashable, Reuters, Wired and others chirpily blogged about it, and why not? It sounded so impressive! Wouldn’t you want to “spend your lunch break searching for migrants who might be in need of help”? The app’s slick promo video promised to use “the power of crowdsourcing to help monitor the vast sea, and make the impossible possible.” Sorry, but “I See” did not make the impossible possible, because vile PR stunts rarely do.

Over Sunday night, at the prodding of @SwiftOnSecurity who called it “feel good bullshit,” technologists began shredding “I Sea.”

The app pretended to distribute satellite imagery to smartphone users so they can “flag” suspicious ships, in the hope that one of the users might spot boats full of refugees—as if an untrained eye can distinguish between a normal boat and a refugee boat. Instead of sending each user a different piece of the Mediterranean Sea, it sent everyone the same image, along with weather from Libya to trick them into thinking this is somehow live, as the Daily Dot also pointed out. iOS expert and developer Rosnya Keller also discovered that the image is an outdated map from Google Maps. Matt Burke analyzed the application and confirmed that despite the fact that the app could request different imagery, it just loads the same image, one made on the 9th of June, and processed in Photoshop.

If you make any attempt to actually flag an object and set of coordinates as a boat in need of a rescue, the app demands your name, email, and even passport information, with no privacy policy in sight. The app doesn’t validate these entries, so my “Fuck off” counted as a valid passport. It all feels like a movie set, detailed only on the part that faces the camera, but flat and empty otherwise. Even their slick website’s login page is actually a bit of jQuery to fake login failures.

Screenshot of “I Sea” app by Peter Yeh

Earlier today, Apple finally removed the app from the Apple store. It’s insane that until Sunday, no one seems to have bothered checking if the app does anything at all.

“I Sea” was developed by a Singapore-based Grey Digital advertising firm, in an apparent collaboration with Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), though it’s unclear how much collaboration actually took place. The app was even nominated (and won an award) at the Cannes Lions international advertising awards show in France.

It is not unusual for advertising firms to collaborate with charities or humanitarian groups. It scores points with clients and it makes the company look “good.” The idea behind “I Sea” itself is plausible. Back in 2014, Tomnod, a part of Colorado based satellite imaging company DigitalGlobe, launched an effort to locate the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. That is part of what is so offensive about this. The app could work, but Grey Digital chose not to make it functional.

Rather, its function wasn’t to do anything for anyone except help Grey Digital put an award on their wall. Meanwhile, “I Sea” users were duped into feeling good about themselves by “flagging” “refugee” “boats,” so they don’t have to feel like shit the next time they happen to accidentally glance at a news article.

Grey Digital, MOAS and Cannes Lion have not responded to a request for comment at this time.

UPDATE: Grey Digital posted a non-apology saying, in between many things, that the app was “in testing mode,” though the Wired profile suggested testing has already been completed, and there was no reason for an app in testing mode to be in the Apple store, even if it was World Refugee Day. Grey Digital’s statement also doesn’t answer questions like “where do you get your data,” “where does this information go to,” and “how do you expect average people to be able to distinguish between regular ship traffic and migrant boats?”

UPDATE: The Guardian reports that MOAS (Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station) has released a statement: “We were dismayed to discover that real time images were not being used. We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media.”

Peter Yeh is a freelance writer based in New York.