FactorDaily 8 Mar 2017

Those ‘women’s safety apps’? They are mostly rubbish 

by Shrabonti Bagchi

It’s ‘let’s do something symbolic and meaningless for women’ day (AKA International Women’s Day, also the day jewellers and salons give discounts to women), so let’s talk about the tokenism problem in trying to solve ‘women’s safety’ through technology.

Recently, the Internet Democracy Project, a non-for-profit research and advocacy organisation that focuses on issues such as freedom of speech and surveillance, conducted a series of workshops and trials on a bunch of ‘women’s safety apps’. The following apps were included in the study:

VithU: developed by Star India Pvt Ltd as a tie-in with the Channel V real-life-crime show Gumraah; last updated in January 2016

Himmat: developed by Delhi Police IT Centre; last updated in March, 2017

Nirbhaya – Be Fearless: developed by SmartCloud Infotech; last updated in June 2014

Raksha: developed by Bharatsewa.com; last updated in March 2014

Eyewatch Women: developed by Eyewatch; last updated in November 2016

My Safetipin: developed by Safetipin; last updated in December 2016

Damini: developed by Klouddata Inc; last updated in April 2013

Most of these apps work on the ‘tracking upon alert’ model — that is, the user selects a number of contacts from her phone contact list who will be alerted through text messages (in some cases even through Facebook and Twitter) if the user sends an ‘SOS’ signal, which is typically activated by either pressing a button in the app or by some repeated activity using the phone’s hardware, such as pressing the power button thrice in rapid succession, pressing the volume up or down button twice etc. As many users have noted in the reviews of these apps on Google Play Store, the alert messages could be sent out even if you’re just fiddling with your phone or the power button becomes stubborn with use and needs to be pressed harder than usual.

The SOS messages could be sent out even if you’re just fiddling with your phone.

I attended one of the Internet Democracy Project’s ‘Gendering Surveillance’ workshops in Bengaluru, during which we were divided into groups and given one app each to test. After the workshop, one of the participants noted that there were major structural issues with an app that could send out random alerts through common actions, defeating the whole purpose of alerting friends and family during an emergency — the classic ‘boy who cried wolf’ problem. “Imagine sending out SOS alerts to a whole bunch of people because you’re playing an especially bad mp3 file with crappy audio,” the participant said. The workshop also found that most of the apps studied (apart from Eyewatch and My Safetipin) did not have an accessible privacy policy, none mention how the data collected through the app is stored, they seek unnecessary permissions, and do not allow users to opt out of particular uses of data collection (essentially, the user has no control over what happens with the data collected via the app).

Even one of the better thought-out and better designed apps, My Safetipin, which depends on crowd-sourced data about areas in cities with locations being marked ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ by users based on parameters like lighting and crowd density, gets quite vague the deeper you go in: for instance, there is a safety parameter named ‘feeling: how safe do you feel’. Now this is highly subjective, and I’d rather not make choices that will curb and restrict my movement depending on such potentially biased feedback shared by a bunch of people I don’t know — who may feel ‘unsafe’, for instance, in a Muslim-dominated area (I’ve actually been told this) even though there is nothing actually threatening their safety.

It’s obvious from the list above that many of these apps haven’t been updated in years. In fact, it’s safe to say that they have been completely forgotten by their own developers; even, surprisingly, the app with the maximum number of downloads in this category, VithU, which has 1,000,000-plus downloads. Perhaps that’s understandable because, cynical as it may sound, it was developed essentially to promote a television show. These lines from the description of the app on the Play Store make that pretty clear: “Don’t miss your favorite Crime Show ‘Gumrah’ with the ‘Show Alert’ option in the Menu Bar which will be your reminder & alert you whenever Gumrah is on Air…. Last but not the least, if you have been a victim or witnessed a Crime you can share the incident with Channel V by posting it in the ‘Submit Your Story’ option in the Menu Bar.”

The messaging that women need guardians and protectors to save them from the evil that roams their city’s streets is anachronistic, to say the least, at a time when we need women to take control over their own lives.

Equally problematic are the terms used by many of the apps to describe the set of people who will be sent distress alerts: “guardians”, “protectors”. The messaging that women need guardians and protectors to save them from the evil that roams their city’s streets is anachronistic, to say the least, at a time when we need women to take control over their own lives.

“One of our case studies found that most of the women’s safety apps that are currently flooding app stores undermine women’s autonomy while taking valuable focus away from more sustainable and empowering solutions,” says Anja Kovacs, director, Internet Democracy Project. “Safety apps are designed in anticipation of situations where there’s some danger, and the app assists in sending a quick distress call to friends, family or the police. These so-called solutions simply make this dependence quicker or easier, but the fact remains that the user has to still rely on a swift response from someone else. That’s surely not ideal!” adds Nayantara Ranganathan, programme manager with the Internet Democracy project who has spearheaded the study and workshops on women’s safety apps.

In fact, even the usability of the apps can be questioned. Studies of mobile app usage patterns have shown that 25% of downloaded apps are never used, and the frequency of usage correlates strongly with how often the user needs the app for a specific purpose — using apps is a matter of habit, and the ones that you need to look at most frequently (such as weather, note-taking, music, news) are the ones that you click again and again, while many downloaded apps lie forgotten on your screen. At a time of crisis — which is not likely to happen frequently — chances of you remembering that you have an app that can send out distress signals to friends and family, finding the app on your phone (provided you can access your phone) and THEN clicking the right buttons, are pretty low.

Essentially, most women’s safety apps work on a flawed model, stoking paranoia and increasing dependence on surveillance without actually providing any provable benefit.

Essentially, most women’s safety apps work on a flawed model, stoking paranoia and increasing dependence on surveillance without actually providing any tangible benefit. It’s a fact that most Indian women, especially after the 2012 Delhi gang rape and other high-profile cases of rape and assault, are unfortunately willing to trade privacy for a false sense of security. On a WhatsApp group with women from my apartment complex in Bengaluru, there is a forward that pops up every few weeks: about how women can feel safe in autos by sending an SMS to a certain number, which will then enable the cops to track the movement of the auto. Forget the fact that no such project has been started by Bengaluru Police (I suspect it is a phishing scam) — what I find most disturbing is the hearty endorsement of this effort by the women in the group. They don’t seem to be discomfited by the idea of someone (potentially) keeping an eye on their every movement. The dependence on ‘guardians’ and ‘protectors’ — so enthusiastically promoted by our popular culture — is unquestioned.

“If solutions are being made for safety in public spaces, then priority should be given to better infrastructure — roads, lights, reliable public transport. It would help to have clear signals from politicians, lawmakers, police officers etc. that violence against women will not be tolerated, whatever they’re wearing, instead of making excuses on behalf of the perpetrators,” says Ranganathan. “Take the Bengaluru New Year’s eve ‘mass molestation’ example — how would a women’s safety app connecting you to the police help if the police in any case cannot control the crowd, or worse, are apathetic? It’s not even the first instance of this happening on New Year’s eve — there are listicles on safety tips that go around for the occasion. Having a more responsive and sensitised police force, for example, would then be a better use of resources,” she adds.

“If solutions are being made for safety in public spaces, then priority should be given to better infrastructure — roads, lights, reliable public transport” — Nayantara Ranganathan, Internet Democracy Project

But large-scale, systemic changes are tough to implement, and it is easier to create quick fix solutions (that in most cases don’t work) and give women a semblance of control and agency (‘you can now click a button and be safe!’) while not thinking the solution through — who is going to actually respond? Is there enough law enforcement fire power to respond to every distress call sent out through these apps? What are a woman’s ‘guardians’ and ‘protectors’ supposed to do when they receive an SOS message? What is the end game here? No one knows. But hey, technology is awesome, and it will make women safer!

Originally published in FactorDaily.