Human rights activists and journalists often hope to make a concrete difference in the way governments treat citizens around the world, but in the worst-case scenario, they can become themselves what they hope to prevent: wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, or even just made to disappear by the regimes they oppose.
A new app from Amnesty International is designed to help protect activists abroad from turning into victims. Called Panic Button, the app works by surreptitiously sending alerts and location data to three selected contacts in case of an emergency.
Panic Button was originally the product of an open design process Amnesty International kicked off in early 2012 to help find ways to use technology to better protect journalists and activists around the world. The product of dozens of activists, designers, programmers, and security experts working together, the end result is an app that turns any smartphone into a secret alarm.
The main idea behind Panic Button is that if a local government or militia is detaining activists or journalists, they can immediately alert people to their plight, and even where they were when they were last with their smartphones. This is more important than it might seem at first: as Sudanese human rights activist Ibrahim Alsafi points out, protestors in many countries are often detained indefinitely by the governments they oppose, because they can't get the word out about what happened to them.
Panic Button is built to help change that. Once installed on your smartphone, the app allows users to select three contacts to send alerts and location info to in case of an emergency. After it has been set up, Panic Button disguises itself as a standard calculator app. All you need to do to tell the app you are in trouble is load it up and hit a button. It then sends out SMS message updates until it can't anymore, whether because it has run out of battery, been turned off manually, or smashed under some jackboot's heel.
If that alone were all Panic Button did, it wouldn't be particularly useful. After all, when a third-world militia is working you over with lengths of rubber hose, they aren't likely to take a break to let you fiddle with your smartphone's calculator app. But what makes Panic Button smart is that you don't even need to load the app to tell people you're in trouble: all you need to do is hit the power button on your phone rapidly to start messaging your friends, at which point the app will continue to broadcast your location until you either tell it to stop or your smartphone itself stops working. It's invisible design that could mean the difference between life and death.
Because Panic Button needs deeper access to the core functions of the operating system than iOS or Windows Phone allow, it only runs on Android right now. That's a shame, but understandable, as the Android operating system is extremely popular in many of the third-world countries that Panic Button is most likely to be used in.