Georgia Tech Research Examines a Government Mandate for Panic Buttons in Mobile Devices and the Need for a Better Answer

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When walking down an unfamiliar or isolated street you might on occasion take out your cell phone and pretend to talk on it in order to deter any would-be criminals. It turns out this is a universal instinct, one of many that women in New Delhi employ when in public spaces, where they often face pervasive sexist attitudes and violence. This year, a mandate by India’s government goes into effect for cell phone manufacturers to include a panic button on all new devices in an effort to curb increased violence against women.

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers interviewed and surveyed women and men in New Delhi and other parts of the country to understand how effective such a measure might be. They found that a number of interconnecting factors influence people’s personal sense of safety.

“We studied all forms of violence women face in public spaces, but our focus is on real or anticipated situations that might test how well the panic button would work,” said team lead Neha Kumar, assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech.

Isolation was the most cited reason New Delhi was considered unsafe past 9 p.m., when there is a considerable drop in the number of people in public areas. Respondents said large crowds and high-density areas also presented dangers, giving individuals who harass women a cloak of anonymity. But crowds of women in designated women’s compartments on the railway system were deemed safer with little threat of harassment or assault.

Smartphones allowed women to hold strangers accountable for their actions, primarily while traveling. When using Uber-like services or auto rickshaws, interviewees said they would take photos of the driver and license plate and send them to family members before getting into the vehicle, as well as send updates of their location during the trip.

Many women said that a panic button on their phones wasn’t beneficial to their current technology practices, one reason being that the phone might not be immediately accessible during an assault. Also, law enforcement, while seen as an effective deterrent against criminals, wasn’t trusted to always respond to assaults for a variety of reasons.

“Our findings highlight that women’s sense of safety is incredibly complex,” said Kumar. “There are multiple factors that exert power over women, affecting their sense of safety and behavior in an emergency situation.”

The research results suggest that India’s mandate for a panic button in phones might ultimately be ineffective in preventing assaults because it does little to interact with, and even misunderstands, the social power dynamics and factors that play into women’s public safety.

“Some participants felt that the impact of sexual assault was too significant to risk, and they valued proactively taking safety measures much more than using a reactionary tool such as the panic button,” said Naveena Karusala, a Georgia Tech computer science major and lead author on the study.

Story written by Joshua Preston



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