Africa: New 'Panic Button' APP Provides Safety Net to Human Rights Activists

press release

Human rights activists in some of the world's most repressive states will have improved access to assistance when facing the risk of attacks thanks to a smart, easy-to-use app launched by Amnesty International today.

"Panic Button", a mobile app for Android, transforms a user's smart phone into a secret alarm which can be activated rapidly in the event of an emergency, alerting fellow activists and enabling them to respond faster.

"Defending human rights is an incredibly dangerous job in large parts of the world, with activists facing anything from threats to imprisonment and even torture as punishment for their legitimate work," said Tanya O'Carroll, Technology and Human Rights Officer for Amnesty International.

"By introducing technology to the fight for human rights 'Panic Button' is bringing them a new tool to alert others about the danger they may be facing with a simple click."

An activists from the Philippines who tested the app said: "I hope I won't have to use it in the future but the threat is so real that to have a tool like the 'Panic Button' could be of help in an emergency."

Protection from harm

In nations across the globe, individuals suspected of posing a threat to state authority are routinely kidnapped, arrested and forcibly 'disappeared', often without any warning.

"Panic Button" will provide thousands of activists at daily risk of persecution and arrest a new tool in their fight for justice.

The official website for the "Panic Button" app is up and running.

Amnesty International hopes that activists and members of the public will help to improve the tool by downloading and testing Panic Button in their country as part of the beta - or testing - phase.

Mitigating the risk

Authorities know that campaigners coordinate meetings, protests and other activities using mobile phones and have ramped up their surveillance capabilities to monitor and track activists, journalists and campaigners.

In a bid to mitigate some of these dangers, the "Panic Button" tool uses a screen disguise feature and requires users to enter a pin number before accessing the application.

The alarm itself is triggered by rapidly pressing the phone's power button, after which an SMS message is sent to three pre-entered contacts chosen by the user, alerting them of the distress call.

When a GPS function is enabled, this message includes a map link showing the user's coordinates and the user can pre-set regular location updates so their network is updated every few minutes when active.

"We are currently working with activists in 16 countries on how to use the tool and on the growing and omnipresent threat of surveillance so they are clear on the risks they take when using a mobile phone in their work," said Tanya O'Carroll.

Panic Button goes global

After receiving £100,000 from the Google Global Impact Awards last year, Amnesty International begun testing the app with human rights defenders in three regions across the globe.

Over a period of six months, hundreds of activists in the Philippines, Central America and East Africa are testing and being trained in using "Panic Button". They are also being trained in teaching others to use it, ensuring that the reach of the tool stretches as far and as wide as possible to those who need it most.

After testing pilots took place in the Philippines and Central America in March this year, human rights activists emphasized how important the tool is in their work and the potential effect it could have for many others in their country.

"The 'Panic Button' is a fundamental tool for alerting but also for devising a security plan and articulating this with our contacts so that the plan is strategic and coordinated... The workshop has forced us to sit down and work out what would we do and how to be able to guarantee a greater level of security for human rights defenders," said a human rights activist in Mexico.

Follow the progress of the Panic Button regional testing here.

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