Earlier this month in Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, a group of camouflaged, armed men stormed two newspaper offices and made off with three editors. According to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the editors were held at an unknown location, then released a few hours later after their kidnappers demanded a change in editorial policy.
Events like these are not uncommon. Human rights organizations fight to release arbitrarily detained activists and journalists regularly. But according to Tanya O’Carroll, project officer of technology and human rights at Amnesty International, it’s a lot more difficult to help detainees when nobody notices they go missing. So, enter the Panic Button app, a winning submission from the Amnesty International Ideo competition that hides an emergency notification tool in a calculator on an Android phone.
“We’ve seen cases and cases of individuals being picked up and detained when there’s no one else around,” O’Carroll explains. “Torture and other violations of human rights often take place when nobody’s watching. By activating your network as quickly as possible, ideally within minutes, that gives you a window of opportunity to make a difference to that person’s case.”
The app works like this: Say you’re in a rural area, checking out a government facility that no one really wants you to see. You program the Panic Button to contact Amnesty, your lawyer, and maybe a family member, and then tell it to shoot out alerts (once activated) every two minutes. If you get picked up by police, you can thumb the power button several times to activate the Panic Button app–or, go into the app itself, disguised as the calculator. Your network will then receive an SMS text, your coordinates, and a Google Maps link as you’re spirited away.
Right now, the Panic Button is being tested in 17 different countries among 120 trainers who then share it with their networks.
But there are some situations, of course, in which the Panic Button could backfire. Take, for example, the situation of a woman who shares her phone with her husband; if he activates the Panic Button, the app works like a tracking device. And even though Panic Button’s open source, there’s also always the possibility that a phone could get intercepted by snooping governments.
There are also situations in which the app would simply do little to help. In the case of the three Al Jazeera journalists recently sentenced to seven and 10 years in prison for doing their jobs, the Egyptian government went to the trouble of putting on a nonsensical trial. “Sometimes governments do things and they don’t try and hide them,” O’Carroll says. “There’s a lot we can do, but it’s a long uphill battle.”
The app serves a very narrow purpose, but that’s also part of the reason O’Carroll says it’s important to keep encouraging traditional human rights activism. “Old tactics need to be continued along with the new,” O’Carroll says. “There’s always going to be a need for people to put pen to paper and pressure governments to free prisoners of conscience.”