The App That Lets Journalists and Activists Secretly Call for Help

In order to send a distress message, a user can either rapidly tap the power button of the phone or use an interface that resembles a normal calculator and hammer any key on that instead.

Jun 23 2014, 8:50pm
Images: Amnesty

Journalism is a dangerous job. Over the past ten years, the number of journalists kidnapped or killed on the job doubled, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. From Syria to Brazil, Pakistan to Somalia, being a reporter—or an activist, aid worker, and the like—is a very risky occupation.

Amensty International are hoping to lessen that danger slightly through the release of a new app that can surreptitiously sends a distress signal to a trio of contacts. Developed in collaboration with iilab, “Panic Button” is based on Android and is open source.

“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,” said Tanya O’Carroll, Technology and Human Rights Officer for Amnesty International, in the organisation's press release. It has been tested with more than 100 users in 17 different countries.

In order to send a distress message, a user can either rapidly tap the power button of the phone—or more accurately, five times in five seconds—or use an interface that resembles a normal calculator and hammer any key on that instead.

Subtlety is key to the app's success, an Amnesty representative told me. “You don't even need to get your phone out of your pocket," the rep told me.

Obviously pulling out your phone when a gun is being pointed at you, or when in a heated crowd that isn't too keen on a journalist's presence, is not the best of ideas. It's much better to keep it in your jacket and still be able to send a necessary signal for help.

The app has some limitations, however. Every sort of obstacle for a regular SMS message will apply: be that a lack of signal coverage due to being in a very remote area, or a government shutting down a telecommunications network, Amnesty told me. 

The representative also pointed out that when the SMS is sent, whoever is on the receiving end could be revealed if the message was picked up by a mass surveillance programme. This could possibly expose the activist's network and their location. 

Amnesty have taken steps to minimise this risk by only allowing three numbers to be stored in the app's contact list. They have supplemented this with general advice to activists such as not storing your entire contact list on your phone, making sure that users create “a pact” of sorts with their three contacts, and deliberating what constitutes a reliable contact in the first place.

“It's an opportunity for increasing awareness” of phone security in general, Amnesty told me, and “creating a strong plan of action with trusted contacts.”

Depending on where you are in the world, journalists are likely to have different types of phones. In Sudan an activist who tested the app had it up and running immediately because everyone in his network used Android phones. However in other places, people rely on other operating systems and a lot fewer smartphones. In Guatemala, for example, only around 20 percent of mobile phone users are on Android, according to Amnesty.

“It's not a tool that everybody can use right now,” Amnesty said, “but the point is that 1.4 billion people around the world are using a smart phone.”

The next step is to provide the same sort of functionality for conventional handsets, to develop other interesting ways to activate the distress signal, and make it more customizable.