Women's safety
Studies show that such ‘safety apps’ haven’t really helped too many women in trouble – so should we continue to invest in them?
Image for representation

News reports on Monday revealed a major proposal by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Bengaluru Mayor Sampath Raj confirmed to TNM that the civic body wants to invest close to 10 crore rupees in ‘Raksha bands’ for women. A proposal for Rs 100 crore (for CCTV cameras, lighting, apart from the bands) has been sent to the Centre so that the money can be allotted under the Nirbhaya Fund.

The band can be worn on the wrist, and will be accompanied by a mobile application, which will in turn be integrated with police control rooms. The band will have motion sensors and a panic button.

The Mayor said that apart from emergency messages and location being sent to ‘guardians’ when the wrist is moved in a certain way, it will also send location and audio clips to monitoring cells, prompting police into action.

The technology is similar to many other apps and wearable gadgets that have come up in the name of women’s safety since Jyoti Singh’s brutal rape and murder in 2012.

A search for ‘Nirbhaya’ on Android Play Store reveals over 20 apps for women’s safety. Search for ‘women’s safety apps’ and you’ll find scores more. There are also reports across last six years about students and professionals developing safety wristbands, ‘anti-molester device’, safety apps, shoes that give electric shocks to attackers and so on.

There is clearly a plethora of options for women to choose from. They have been developed by private players, state governments, police departments... even celebrities like Kareena Kapoor have thrown their weight behind such initiatives.

But there is little evidence to suggest that these apps have helped many women in actual distress. For instance, Hawk Eye, a safety app launched by Hyderabad police in 2013, saw no genuine complaint raised through it in two years. Further, a study by campaign group Red Elephant in 2016 found that while 2,547 of 4,300 women surveyed had safety apps on their phones, 72% hadn’t used them. And yet, another research by women’s safety charity Akshara revealed that 95% women had faced street sexual harassment.

If so, should governments be investing in similar initiatives?

Nayantara R, Bengaluru-based Program Manager at the Internet Democracy Project, conducted a study in February 2017 where she surveyed 50 such apps. Apart from nine apps in her sample (which had been developed by police departments, governments or political parties), others had all been developed by private players. Her research, though not exhaustive, reveals interesting insights.

Data and moving beyond physical safety

Most of these apps’ features can be categorised into tracking upon alert, constant tracking, geofencing (sends an alert to pre-selected contacts if the user strays from the geographical area or route), and heatmaps (a crowdsourced tagging of areas as ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’).

All of these features work in an ideal world where the user has choice over their movements and who they want to share this information with. But in a country where women’s movement continues to be restricted for ‘safety’, it does not take long for these features to turn into a sort of digital leash to control movement.

Nayantara also says that there are few safeguards against keeping sensitive information like location, audio and pictures safe. “Safety does not end at bodily safety. Most of the apps we surveyed had weak privacy policies, if at all. Many of them had been developed by data developers who added in the fine print that data could be shared with third parties to get out of legal hassles,” she says.

Surveillance and regressive messaging

It goes without saying that most of these apps premise women’s safety on surveillance.

But what Nayantara also noticed was the language used to market these apps. In one instance, she recounts, an app’s description opened with questions like, “Is your wife staying late at work?” and “Is your mother not home yet?”

“These features are definitely not agency giving or autonomy encouraging,” Nayantara observes.

Bengaluru-based women’s rights activist Brinda Adige agrees. “The apps, especially ones that allow constant tracking, have patriarchal leanings. You want to tell me that I cannot change my mind and take left instead of a right? Protection cannot come at the cost of my freedom,” she argues.

Are we addressing the real problems?

Another presumption these apps and gadgets seem to make is that women are mostly threatened outside their homes and by strangers.

But the latest data from National Crime Records Bureau has shown – as it has for several years now – that less than 6% women are raped by strangers. What happens when violence occurs within closed doors and when perpetrators are intimate partners or known persons?

“Apps that make it easy to contact the police or a family member in a short time are of no use when cases of sexual assault by a known person can involve willful ignorance by family members, reluctance of police to meddle in ‘family matters’, blackmail and any number of other complications,” Nayantara’s research says.

There is also a sense of tokenism here, Nayantara says. It is easier to make an app and market it than make public spaces safer and more accessible for women, or dealing with dark spots by better infrastructure like better street lighting.

Apps can’t gloss over lack of support mechanisms

Brinda points out that technological wearables and apps underestimate the absence of proper safety and response mechanisms.

Questioning the rationale behind the ‘Raksha band’, she asks, “What happens for instance, if this device is snatched from me in an emergency situation? Will it still ensure that the police arrive to my rescue promptly? Furthermore, most women are afraid of filing a formal complaint. Will the police register a suo moto case?”

She argues that there are many other follies in the system – the one-stop crisis centres being understaffed, dark spots, lack of CCTV cameras… “The Nirbhaya Fund has been lying unutilised for a long time. How do we know this is not a gimmick for the upcoming Karnataka election? Even if they say they will put more CCTV cameras, who is monitoring them at all times?" Brinda questions.

Tech is not infallible

Even if we were to discount the fact that tech-based solutions automatically cater to a tech-savvy crowd, leaving out many vulnerable women, the problem lies in the fact that technology does not always work the way we expect it to.

“It’s not about adoption of technology, which can be made possible once it’s tried and tested. But what if your device is not charged, or does not have signal? What about false alarms? And what if you cannot access your device in an emergency situation?” Nayantara questions.

Further, Nayantara points out that technological solutions require a behavioural change in how we react to threats and danger.

“We need to move beyond marketing and photo ops. There needs to be a solid feedback loop before more resources are pumped into solutions whose performance hasn’t been established,” she asserts.

Further, Brinda says, “If you call 100, you shouldn't have to wait for 40 seconds before you get past the automated response on the other end. Technology cannot compensate for the lack of a human touch at the other end who can tell the woman to fight back while help is on the way.”