I Sea App Wins Ad Award, Then Declared Fake

Refugee rescue app made by Singapore-based ad agency only shows static images of the sea.

BY Jason S Ganesan | Jun 23, 2016 | News

UNHCR Tracks

Almost immediately after winning a bronze at the Cannes Lions advertising festival, a refugee rescue app developed by Singapore-based agency Grey Group was pulled from the Apple App Store for being fake.

I Sea was supposed to be able to allow users to spot refugee boats lost at sea using real-time satellite footage, despite that sounding like the sort of tech that would get even Jack Bauer hot and bothered.

If a boat is flagged, that info would then be sent to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)—a network of humanitarians, security professionals, medical staff and maritime officers whose sole purpose is to help refugees stranded at sea.

The harrowing reality of refugees stranded at sea is something those in this region would be all too familiar with, so it’s no surprise that the app won an award and tons of plaudits—it could have theoretically save hundreds or thousands of lives, if it worked.

Only it didn’t. I Sea only showed a static picture of the sea.

Intrigued by the mid-blowing functionality of I Sea, developers began digging into its mechanics, only to find a humbug hiding behind a curtain. They began to trade notes on Twitter on all the red flags the app raised.

Not only was the app developed by an ad agency (as opposed to refugee rescue experts), but it also featured a duplicitous weather tool (to make users believe that they were looking at the Mediterranean), and quite bizarrely demanded that users provide their passport information (supposedly at the behest of MOAS). And, of course, it didn’t actually feature real-time satellite images.

Grey Group spokesperson Owen Dougherty said that it was all a big misunderstanding, and seemed genuinely dismayed that a large advertising agency could be accused of being unethical. Quite possibly making the greatest understatement in recent memory, Dougherty said that Grey Group had “some satellite issues to work out.”

MOAS were understandably livid, and released a statement that they had “discontinued their relationship” with Grey. Apple were having none of it either, and pulled from the App Store for containing “false information and features.”