More than an app: Panic Button, one year on

'We are afraid. We are afraid that the abduction that happened to our parents might also happen to us.'
Ipe Soco

Ipe Soco's mother and grandfather were abducted from the car they were travelling in in 2006. They have been missing ever since.

Ipe now works for Desaparecidos, an organisation fighting for the victims of enforced disappearances in the Philippines. I spoke with him at a workshop for Panic Button, our app for Android phones which aims to help human rights activists who are at risk of being attacked.

'Doing this kind of work is really risky, but Panic Button can really help minimize the danger.'
Ipe, human rights activist in the Philippines

Launched with our partners iilab, the engine room and Frontline Defenders, the app is a mobile ‘distress signal’ which, when activated, sends three designated recipients an alert message and location update every five minutes.

But it’s much more than an app. It also encourages activists like Ipe to prepare and make security plans with a network of trusted people, so that they can respond quickly if something happens.

'Every day I make sure my sister knows where I’m going and what kind of work I’ll be doing that particular day. I tell her the time that I am supposed to be in a particular area and what time she can expect me home.'
Ipe Soco

Planning in case of attack

Ipe is one of more than 120 activists from 17 countries who helped us test the app and integrate it into their plans. These activists often live with the constant threat of being detained or attacked. But by talking about the risks with their contacts and developing a plan of action, they can take back some control over their security. In the Panic Button trial, we call this process ‘setting up a PACT’ (short for ‘Prepare-Act’).

Activists told us that having a PACT made them more aware of security issues, so that they frequently checked up on each other’s situation. They also said it had increased their confidence and made them feel safer, bringing a degree of peace of mind when working in high-risk environments.

As a human rights activist from El Salvador told me during a workshop we ran in San Salvador: “It’s a guarantee that if at any time something happens to me there will be companions who will know what they can do.”

In this way, technology is only as useful as the practices of those who use it. The most important thing will always be communication, human judgment and strong communities. Or, as another activist from the Philippines puts it: “Security is community. Having a PACT gives you a sense of security.”

Developing the tools activists need

Inevitably, using technology brings challenges. In our evaluation of Panic Button, activists also report technical problems, weak network coverage in remote areas and patchy GPS signal. But we are working to keep improving the app and the supporting materials so that they are as reliable and relevant as possible.

Our hope is that human rights activists like Ipe will have the tools they need to respond when someone is in danger. And they’ll gain critical information about time and location so attackers can later be brought to justice.

“Doing this kind of work is really risky,” Ipe tells me. “But Panic Button can really help minimize the danger. Or at least inform the family or community of the victim of their whereabouts.”

“I just wish my family had that tool on the day they disappeared, so that at least we knew where to start to look for them.”

By Tanya O'Carroll, Amnesty Technology and Human Rights Advisor and one of the founders of Panic Button

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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