Panic Button: SMS to SOS

A mobile phone app that sends out a distress signal to your loved ones.

Imagine standing by the roadside and being approached by armed men who rob you of your valuables. Or a stranger looking you up and down to the point where you feel queasy. How many times have you felt unsafe and wished for a way to call for help?

Amnesty International, the global human rights NGO, has recently launched a mobile phone app which can turn an Android phone into a device used to send out a distress signal with a feature called the Panic Button. “The aim of the Panic Button is to increase protection for activists around the world who face the ever-present threat of arrest, attack, kidnap and torture,” states Tanya O’Carroll, Amnesty’s technology and human rights officer, in a press release.

While the app is specifically designed for activists and journalists who find themselves in danger due to the nature of their work, anyone can use it. The functionality of the app is quite simple. Once installed, it asks the user to save three contacts that will instantly be sent a text message requesting help if the key in the app or the phone’s power button is pressed five times.

The success of the app depends on two factors: security and speed. The person in danger often has to quickly react; that is why Amnesty has linked the power button to the trigger so that the alarm can be set off with ease and speed, even from inside a pocket, says O’Carroll. Moreover, it is imperative that the app be hidden, since in most cases when an activist or journalist is arrested or attacked, the attacker seizes the phone and uses it to locate other contacts in their network. To prevent this, the app continues to send location updates to the user’s chosen contacts once the Panic Button is pressed, and alerts others that they should activate a plan to secure communications within the network.

Last year a similar initiative, called the VithU app, was launched in India by Star network in association with Channel V, after several rapes in Delhi and Mumbai. Keeping in view the law and order situation in Pakistan, an app like this is the need of the hour here too and one hopes that it makes a difference on the ground.

Nisha Masroor is a freelance writer.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 20th,  2014.