AWS Startups Blog

Making Data Safer: Citizen’s James Neville Talks Biometric Authentication

James Neville

James Neville, CEO and Founder of

As our online lives expand and businesses find new and better ways to provide everyday services via the internet, it can feel like increasing amounts of our sensitive data are in the hands of companies without stellar track records of keeping that data safe. James Neville, CEO and founder of Citizen, a one-touch login and registration app, hopes to change that metric. “We were working in payments, and it struck us how loose the security was around personal data when compared to card or bank accounts,” he explains. “And it’s only gotten worse over the years.” He’s right.

Any given day, we check our email (work accounts, personal accounts), pay bills (electric, doctor copays, car insurance), order a lunch burrito, shop for that perfect summer dress, RSVP for our friend’s wedding (better get that dress sooner rather than later), read the news, schedule appointments, and binge watch the latest streaming TV—all online, through multiple portals, using a plethora of complicated passwords and authentication codes. And it feels like almost any given day, we hear about yet another massive data breach—retailers, banks, credit agencies, all ultimately susceptible to hackers bent on capturing our personal information from point-of-service machines, payment processing systems, and other interfaces we regularly rely on. In fact, there were more data breaches in 2017 than in any prior year, and the rate at which those breaches are occurring is only increasing.

To tackle the challenge of online data protection, Neville and his team developed Citizen to offer a secure communication channel between users and the companies and services with which they regularly interact. Citizen employs end-to-end encryption to safeguard users’ sensitive data, which means that not even Citizen itself can access that data. With this configuration, users have total control over who sees their personal information, and they can revoke permission at any time from individual companies, should they choose to do so. Plus, Citizen values maintaining a platform that’s not only secure but also offers a seamless user experience. As Neville describes, “The short-term wins are when a customer is thankful, especially when they get new features—it’s great for our teams to see their work in situ.” All data stored through Citizen is centrally organized in an intuitive interface, so when users need to update their information, they only need to do so in one place. This saves time and reduces potential errors (not to mention headaches) while ensuring that businesses have the most up-to-date information about their clientele. It’s a win-win. And, keeping in line with the most recent developments in international guidelines for information privacy, Citizen is also GDPR compliant.

With Citizen’s biometric technology, users can forget having to keep track of multiple passwords for various accounts—all those strings of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. For the less organized among us, that means no more lockouts or repeated password resets. “Given we’ve moving to a (very near-term) future of paying with your face and fingerprint, it made sense to better secure that identity transaction,” Neville explains, “and hence Citizen was born.”

Neville is proud of Citizen’s ground-up approach to data security, and he’s especially proud of what his team has accomplished despite starting small. “Scaling a startup is tough, and lots of the early days are full of rejections, both from prospects and investors,” he says. But Citizen made it happen and is hoping to change the data security landscape. “We bootstrapped our early business with friends and family,” he continues. “Whilst we’re always talking to prospective investors, what’s been important to us is the dedication of our team to get features done (and a lot of late nights!).” The trust he has in his team is the foundation upon which Citizen is built, and it underpins Citizen’s core values. Well, that and barbeque, of course: “Team BBQ! We have a culture of food to celebrate success—BBQ is the team’s favorite.”

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung currently works in startup content at AWS and was previously the head of content at Index Ventures. Prior to joining the corporate world, Michelle was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, the founding Business Editor at the Huffington Post, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, a columnist for Publisher’s Weekly and a writer at Entertainment Weekly.