Wednesday, May 29, 2024

New tech helping keep women safe on streets

Could technology play a role in making women feel safer on our streets? Since the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, the WalkSafe app has had a surge in popularity, and is the fastest-growing safety app in the U.K. Founder Emma Kaye came up with the concept after experiencing harassment, groping, and flashing. “Our app is really bitter-sweet because, of course, we love that we’re busy. However, we really wish it didn’t have to exist. No one wants to live in a world where we need a safety app, but sadly there is a place for it.” WalkSafe will have a new sat-nav feature coming early next year, which will include a live map where your family and friends will be able to track your journey and chat with you in real time. Since launching in March this year, the app has had more than 560,000 downloads. At the University of Bath, researchers are trying to solve the problem of safety products that are difficult to physically activate. They are developing a women’s smartwatch app called Epowar that would automatically send alerts if it senses the user is in distress – by monitoring heart rate and body motion. Co-founder student E-J Roodt said the idea came to her while jogging in a badly lit park, and worrying about the risk of an attack. “When I saw that smartwatches were being used to detect heart attacks I thought, well, maybe that technology could be applied to women’s safety,” she said. Although the sample size is small, the app uses artificial intelligence to recognize distress, and responds if a user is attacked when walking or running alone. Roodt said: “It occurred to us that a smartwatch with this app may be a way to alert others if a woman is restrained or struggling. The key is that it would all happen automatically, and an assailant would have little or no time to prevent this – which is not always possible with conventional panic buttons, rape alarms, or your mobile phone.” Rich Larsen, founder of the bSafe app for smartphones, said his technology could help bring about prosecutions. It has an emergency alarm feature that is voice activated. It then automatically starts live-streaming video and audio to chosen contacts, and records everything that is happening. “These recordings could be used in evidence in court cases – like rape – which are often hard to prove,” said Larsen. The features of the app are based on the experience of his daughter, Charlen, who was raped. Charlen, who has waived her right to anonymity in order to speak out on the issue, says if she had had bSafe, she would not have had to struggle as much with the guilt and shame she felt. Crown Prosecution Service data for 2020 shows that of the 58,845 rapes reported, only 2,102 were prosecuted, with 1,439 resulting in convictions. In July, the Home Office launched a £5-million fund to help improve the safety of women in public spaces at night. Some of the successful bids include initiatives involving technology. For example, police in Bristol are using new kits to test whether drinks have been spiked in nightclubs. Cheshire police are improving current call-handling technology to provide an instant visible and reassuring response to a female calling for support. West Yorkshire Combined Authority is promoting access to an online link with safety information for women on public transport, such as bus tracking, so there is no longer a need to stand alone at a bus stop. Technology can also be used by those seeking to harm or frighten people. So, for instance, the same technology that allows you to find your lost smartphone can be used by someone wanting to track or stalk someone. Paladin, the national anti-stalking advocacy service, says tech firms need to do more to protect victims if tech is misused. Rachel Horman-Brown, chairwoman of the charity, said: “Many victims are tracked and monitored through their phones or tablets by spyware. “So, actually, stalkers don’t even need to physically get a tracking device on the victim to be able to monitor them. “Spyware is concerning as it can enable a stalker to switch on the camera on a victim’s mobile phone, so that they can see and hear what is happening. They can also read and send text messages from the victim’s phone, as well as tracking their whereabouts.” The proliferation of tracking devices such as Apple AirTags or The Tile, which help you find your wallet, keys, or luggage, has also led to an increase in fears of stalking. “These small, inexpensive tags can potentially make it very easy for a stalker to hide one in the victim’s car or personal possessions, and then be able to track their victim’s whereabouts,” said Horman-Brown.

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