Are Panic Buttons Effective? Here’s How They Work To Combat Street Harassment

From apps to wearable tech, "safety devices" that do everything from broadcast GPS data to contact local police have been popular in the past few years. Several countries around the world have trialled panic button apps and systems to help women who are being assaulted or harassed connect with police, a helpline, family members or volunteers. The most recent is India, which will begin a pilot project on January 26 in which all new mobile phones sold must have a panic button installed, but it's also been tested in Mexico in 2017 and elsewhere. But there's been criticism of the entire idea, and not only because of logistical issues. Panic buttons might seem like an effective way to deal with street harassment, but placing the burden of responsibility for "fixing" street harassment and assault on women and their ability to report is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

One of the biggest issues with panic buttons in general is that they require serious infrastructure behind the scenes to work properly: 24-hour response teams, people who are trained to help survivors of assault, law enforcement's cooperation, and so on. This aspect is so concerning to the Internet and Mobile Association of India that they released a statement this month saying that "introducing hardware and software tweaks in smartphones and feature phones will not solve the issue of safety and security of women in India," because of "a lack of an effective response management system with the local police and law enforcement agencies and poor back-end infrastructure."

Ananya Bhattacharya, writing for Quartz, also notes that whether panic buttons are public or private, they've been subject to abuse and false alarms when tested in the past. Alarms in the women's train carriage in a Mumbai train were used 1,000 times in a month according to Quartz, many clearly pranks. While all publicly available services have this issue, private apps haven't fared much better; the Times Of India reported in 2013 that an early app, Hawk Eye, launched in Hyderabad in 2013, didn't receive any genuine alarms in the entire 2-year period of its operation. At all.

And this reflects a wider issue with panic buttons in general: the first instinct of women in trouble isn't necessarily to reach for their phones, especially if they're in physical danger. The Guardian reported in 2016 that research conducted by the anti-violence group Red Elephant found that 72 percent of surveyed Indian women who had a safety app on their phone had never used it, despite their own experiences of street harassment and assault. And that's assuming that women have phones at all, or reception to use them.

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Whether it's because of lack of trust in the police, worry about stigma, a lack of practicality or the fact that the attacker may well be known to them, women around the world have many reasons not to push their buttons, just as they have many reasons not to report sexual assault and harassment in general. RAINN estimates that only 310 out of every 1000 sexual assaults in the U.S. are ever reported to police.

The basic ethos behind panic buttons themselves has also been questioned. Maddy Myers, writing about the plethora of wearable safety devices on The Mary Sue in 2016, highlights the ethical difficulty of devices that not only surveil women by focusing on their location, but also places the burden of responsibility for prevention on them:

Why focus so much design power on making devices marketed towards women that, essentially, put the onus upon them to protect themselves (and apparently, keep constant tabs on their female friends as well)? That’s already what society has been telling women to do since time immemorial: if anything happens to us, it’s supposedly our fault for not taking enough steps to “stay safe.”

The Interpreter raised the particular issue of surveillance and safety when it comes to panic buttons and women's user data. In India, and in other areas where panic button apps and devices are developed by governments, they note that while GPS-enabled panic buttons are likely there to help authorities locate victims, they could also be used for other purposes, including gathering user data for surveillance purposes. And that goes for privately developed apps and devices, too; GPS data is a valuable commodity and might be sold by developers or obtained in other ways. Perversely, the proliferation of panic buttons might make women's safety more of a problem, not less.

If you have a panic button app or device, investigate its terms and conditions very thoroughly, and make sure you know exactly what would happen if you pressed it. Women deserve better than an app that places the onus on them to do the work of their own protection.