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Amnesty International Releases Panic Button, An App For Human Rights Activists

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, June 23 2014

Panic Button (Wikipedia)

Banks have them. Convenience stores and gas stations have them. Old people have them. Panic buttons send alarms to police stations and emergency services and can save lives and property (and are an essential bank heist movie trope). Personal alert devices used to be marketed almost exclusively to the elderly (“Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!”), but now they're being designed for a different but similarly vulnerable group: the political or human rights activist. On June 23 Amnesty International released their secret alert system for activists, an Android app called Panic Button. Panic Button (Beta), which techPresident covered at an earlier stage last year, is now available for download in the Google Play Store.

The way it works is simple: in an emergency, pressing the power button in rapid succession will activate the alert, sending a text message and regular location tracking information to trusted contacts. The hard work takes place offline: choosing three trusted contacts; figuring out a plan of action in the event that they receive an alert.

The app shields user data with a disguise screen and pin number, although the protection is limited.

To help potential users, the developers wrote a quick flow chart to determine whether or not Panic Button is the right tool for someone. Most notably, they inform potential users that the app “only improves your safety when your contacts can do something to help you. The disguise is only here to delay the discovery of the application for as long as possible to send your location updates.”

They also warn that the identities of users and their contacts are vulnerable: “A competent adversary might be able to find out about your location, that you are alerting your contacts or the identity of your contacts.”

The concern for user safety is evident. Jun Matsushita, Founder and CEO of iilab, writes:

The main trade off from a security standpoint is that the ability of the app to alert a user's trusted contacts rapidly is more relevant/important than the privacy of the user or their contacts. The disguise and discreet activation methods are only there to delay discovery, to allow a network to act and to mitigate harm. With no network ready to act, or no possibility to influence the outcomes, then using SMS alerts could reveal a user's contact and do more harm than good. Hopefully, this will be clear to the user with our efforts put towards educational communication. Hopefully, individuals and organisations [sic] who adopt or promote the application, will also relay this message clearly.

Panic Button was developed in collaboration with Front Line Defenders, iilab, the engine room and Thoughtworks.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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