Apr 26, 2016

Panic buttons in cellphones alone will do nothing for women’s safety in India

But first, let’s understand this -- what exactly is a “panic button”?

BYRamarko Sengupta

India’s telecom department, if you haven’t heard already, wants all mobile phone makers to add a “panic button” to every handset they sell in the country from January 1, 2017. They must also add GPS capabilities to each device sold after January 1, 2018. This, ostentatiously, is to ensure safety for women (because our men never get into dangerous situations and need safety features, of course). It took “several meetings” to get mobile manufacturers on board for this initiative, said the government.
But first, let’s understand this — what exactly is a “panic button”? The Gazette of India notification says that from January 1, 2017, no mobile phone handset manufacturing company shall sell “feature phones without the facility of panic button by pressing ‘numeric key – 5’ or ‘numeric key – 9’ to invoke emergency call” or “smartphones without the facility of emergency call button by pressing the same for long time to invoke emergency call or the use of existing power on or off button, when short pressed thrice in quick succession.”
Where will such a button be located on smartphones that are usually buttonless? No idea. But let’s leave such finicky design questions aside. What we need to know is: what’s the plan, government? Assuming every single handset maker that sells phones in India lets the government dictate how it should design its phones and does end up adding panic buttons to their devices, what next? Do you have an elaborate safety mechanism in place that kicks in as soon as this magic button, this panacea that solves women’s safety in India once and for all, is pressed?
A Business Standard report says, “Once a panic button is pressed, a call will be directed to the emergency contact — family, friend or police. Though, details are yet to be finalised.” So basically, the government isn’t sure who will respond to your panic call, but has gone ahead and cracked the whip at phone manufacturers anyway.
“If a woman feels she is in trouble, the only thing she has to do is press that button and it will immediately send a message to the police,” the Press Trust of India quoted Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi as saying.
But what happens if the victim is in a network blindspot? What if her phone is snatched away, switched off, or destroyed? What if she presses it and …nothing happens? Is our law and order system equipped to handle panic button calls if all the 700 million plus mobiles in India come equipped with this feature?
“Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women,” Communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
Great words, Mr. Minister, but can you back it up with action please? Because safety is a matter that can’t just be addressed with smart words and political posturing. Just issuing a diktat to mobile phone manufacturers to “install panic button and GPS” is meaningless if you don’t simultaneously tell users what they can expect if they do need help. It makes your effort sound like yet another ill thought-out government initiative and an attempt to solve problems by mindlessly throwing technology at them.
The intent is good, but as with all things execution is the key. The whole plan is heavily reliant on the law and order machinery, which has been found wanting time and again, especially in cases concerning women’s safety.

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Ramarko Sengupta is a writer of FactorDaily.