Panic Button: a new way to protect human rights defenders at risk

23 Jul 2015

Human rights defenders (HRDs) have, technically, plenty of protection. They also have, realistically, far more risks.

The United Nations Declaration on HRDs, for example, encourages us all to be one. It also encourages states to protect and, if anything, engender HRDs.

In reality, were that the case then human rights defenders would be far less needed.

Protecting these activists has proved difficult over the years. The dawn of technology was supposed to aid the proliferation of information, spreading the word and helping society from the bottom up.

Instead what we have seen is growing power amongst established powers, with the word surveillance now merely one part of a growing, worrying phrase: state surveillance.

Human rights defenders at risk

Considering HRDs are often working to address concerns of those not loved by states, that can put their position at risk.

They may be tracked, spied on, intimidated, arrested or even worse. Protections, therefore, are important.

And so to Panic Button, a clever tool developed by Amnesty International, iilab, The Engine Room* and Front Line Defenders.

It works in a very simple way, actually. The user downloads the app and inputs the contact details of three, trusted colleagues that he or she can rely on for a quick response.

‘Think carefully when choosing your contacts and always talk to them first to ensure you have a response plan in place’

Then, when the HRD feels like a particular emergency is putting him or her at sufficient risk, rapidly tapping on the phone’s power button alerts the three listed contacts of a location.

Panic Button - Human Rights Defenders at Risk

Panic Button app, via Frontline Defenders

Of course, considering the environment HRDs work in all the time, this is not something that eliminates risk, it merely allows for slightly better control when put in danger.

“Using Panic Button to send an alert only improves your safety when your contacts can do something to help you,” says the site.

“The disguise is only here to delay the discovery of the application for as long as possible to send your location updates. 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 latter point is quite poignant, actually. This app could, in theory, be used against the user. In a country where mass telecom monitoring and interception is practised, this tool could reveal information about where you are, as well as your trusted contacts.

This is a warning that Panic Button, itself, highlights.

Still, the more tools to help out HRDs the better.

*Update* (July 23, 10.42am)
This post from The Engine Room, the developers of the app, gives a rather excellent account of the service and how it came about.

Main image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic