Singapore-based agency returns Cannes award for 'fake' refugee-locating app

The I SEA app claimed to be able to locate migrant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.
The I SEA app claimed to be able to locate migrant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

SINGAPORE - A Singapore-based firm is returning the Bronze Lion it won at the Cannes festival for a refugee-locating app that some critics have deemed fake.

Digital advertising agency Grey Group, whose philanthropic arm Grey for Good developed the controversial I SEA app, has stood by its product, accusing "unnamed bloggers" of "unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting attacks".

But it said on Wednesday (July 6) that it was returning the award "so there is not even the hint of impropriety or a question of our integrity".

There were apparent problems with the app even before it won the Lion in Promo & Activation on June 20.


That same day, it was pulled from Apple's App Store for breaching guideline 1.1.6, which bans "false information and features".

The app claimed to be able to scan the Mediterranean Sea for migrant ships, and purportedly employed real-time satellite data that allows users to spot, tag and report a vessel in distress.

This information would then be relayed to the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station - Grey Group's client for the app - so that the authorities can send help.

But outside developers who tested the app flagged it as a dud, revealing that I SEA "pretends" to distribute satellite footage of different parts of the sea to the app's users, but instead uses the same image.

Some also noted the app was coded to always inform users that their usernames and passwords are invalid.

When the controversy erupted, Grey Group's chief communications officer, Owen Dougherty, told The Straits Times the app was real but was in a testing stage.

He added: "We said it was in a testing stage and they have some satellite issues to work out. For some reason, a developer unknown to us has pushed the story that it is fake or a hoax."

The controversy made it to the websites of newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian.

In a statement to AdWeek on Wednesday, Grey Group said it was returning the Bronze Lion.

It hit out at its critics, insisting there was "no need for scam projects" given how it won 90 Cannes Lions this year.

"During Cannes we said the app was real and its creator, Grey for Good in Singapore, is a highly respected philanthropic unit that has helped numerous non-profit organizations," the statement read.

"Moreover, Grey is one of the most creatively awarded agencies in the world with the highest ethical standards.

"However, given the unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting attacks by unnamed bloggers, we are putting an end to this and returning the Bronze Lion so there is not even the hint of impropriety or a question of our integrity.

"The saying 'no good deed goes unpunished' is apt in this case."