Jun 6 2014, 4:33am CDT | by Forbes
If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, your first instinct may not be to reach for your smartphone for help. But a Brooklyn developer has built a new emergency app, ‘I’m Getting Kidnapped,’ that could help make you feel a bit safer, just in time for the World Cup.
The title’s a bit blunt–if not alarmist sounding–but Jason Van Anden isn’t trying to scare anybody. Instead, the software engineer’s named the app after its inspiration, another free app he made during the Occupy Wall Street protests. That app, ‘I’m Getting Arrested,’ was downloaded over 30,000 times by people from Zucotti Park to most recently the Ukraine and is available in fourteen languages today.
Like ‘I’m Getting Arrested,’ the ‘I’m Getting Kidnapped’ app is a free, non-commercial product–there aren’t any ads or hidden fees to use it. Van Anden’s day job is to work with commercial clients like Tiffany & Co., Citibank and Red Bull. “People reach out to me for help, and as a technologist I thought this was an interesting re-use of my technology that might have a big impact,” Van Anden says. “My profit here is doing a thing to make the world a little better.”
So how does a phone app help in a very physical and scary situation like a kidnapping? ‘I’m Getting Kidnapped’ basically works as a distress beacon for its user, the benefit it provides kind of like what someone might get if they had access to your phone-finding features or an app like Life360. What makes it different, however, is that Van Anden’s app can be activated in just a second to alert you that there’s anything for someone else to need to track at all.
Forbes tested out the app prior to its Thursday launch (here it is in Google Play), and found it overall very simple to use. After downloading the app, you see its primary bullseye target that takes up most of the screen, but are alerted that the app isn’t ready for use. Opening its settings, you can input a custom message such as “Hello, if you’re receiving this, Alex is in danger. Here is his last location and please alert authorities.” Then you input the phone numbers of people you want to receive that message such as close family and friends, and enable the phone to lock your screen. The process took us about a minute.
The actual app then needs a spot that you can quickly get to on the real estate of your phone. When in danger, you open the app and hold your thumb down on the large bullseye target, which vibrates after about a second of contact. The app then sends your message by SMS text to the numbers you alerted, as well as a pin location in Google Maps. It also locks your phone discreetly so that someone else wouldn’t see that message, and keeps sending every 15 minutes until the phone is turned off.
When we tried it, the app worked as Van Anden said it would–messages were near instantaneous, and tapping the app proved faster than sending a deliberate text message asking for help. It’s plausibly faster than calling 911 or a local police force who’d then have to hear the exact situation and figure out where you were.
The app isn’t a perfect solution by any means–you still have to have the presence of mind to open it and have the message pre-made, plus you need cell reception for the text. And simply alerting others that you’re in danger and your vicinity won’t necessarily keep you safe, especially if an attacker simply turns off or discards your phone.
Van Anden’s hope is that his app might bring peace of mind as a better tool, if not a perfect one. “Maybe it’s in your pocket as something you’re aware of and you keep the app engaged. My motivation is that it be helpful, so if we get feedback, we can improve the app.”
The biggest limitation for the app’s impact is that it’s only available on Android. That’s not because Van Anden doesn’t think iPhone users might need something like this–it’s because Apple rejected ‘I’m Getting Arrested’ in the past after months of review. Apple doesn’t allow apps to send SMS in the background, so an Apple version of the app would push messages to your Facebook and Twitter. “They claimed it wouldn’t appeal to enough of their audience, but that was the day that PC Magazine picked it as a top 10 Android app of 2011. It stung.”
Van Anden stresses that the app isn’t a World Cup gimmick, but he did release it in time for the event all the same. The idea actually came from a Brazilian businessman, Alberto Moravia, whose boss had been the victim of a kidnapping. Moravia helped translate the app into Spanish and Portuguese versions, but Van Anden says he’s happy to work with any volunteers who wish to contact him by email to bring the app into additional languages. That’s how he crowdsourced Turkish and other language versions of ‘I’m Getting Arrested’ in the past.
So if you or a friend is an Android user concerned about safety, ‘I’m Getting Kidnapped’ may be worth a quick download and test. (Van Anden also warns to try the app out and pre-warn friends their your contacts before setting the app to live use.)
Of course, the app doesn’t solve the problem of kidnapping itself, and it’s only a tool, not a solution to the problem. Its creator’s well aware.
“I hope nobody has to use this, and the fact that it needs to exist is frankly a little disturbing,” Van Anden says. “I would much prefer that there be no reason to have to download it, but I would say, better be safe than sorry.”
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