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New app offers ‘panic button’ for activists in danger

Witness app screenshot (TechCrunch)

Witness app screenshot (TechCrunch)

In countries all over the world, activists and journalists risk their safety, their freedom and even their lives to speak up for human rights and civil liberties. They may face harassment, intimidation, arrest or physical violence. Others have simply been “disappeared,” sometimes with no witnesses and no paper trail. When there are no eye witnesses or records of the abuse, it is often very difficult to hold perpetrators to account for their actions.

What if you could keep a witness in your pocket? This is the concept behind Witness, winner of the grand prize at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt NY Hackathon, which took place earlier this month. The Hackathon is an annual event in which hundreds of coders and developers have a weekend to build apps from scratch. Other winners ranged from a social media app for transgender people to an app which senses whether you’ve left the stove on.

Inspired by the use of cell phone recordings of recent cases of police brutality to build legal cases against the perpetrators, developer Marinos Bernitsas wanted to create an app so that victims of abuse would not have to rely on the hope that someone else was able to catch the attack on video. He calls it a “panic button for the smartphone age.”

When activated, Witness automatically calls and texts your location to a preset list of emergency contacts, and sends them a link to a live stream audio and video recording. As it does this the phone’s screen remains dark so that it is not obvious that it is recording, making it less likely that the phone will be taken or destroyed. If neither Wi-Fi nor cellular networks are available, the app will record and save everything until the memory is full or the battery runs out, and will upload recordings in 10-second chunks as soon as a network becomes available. Uploading in short chunks means that even if a network becomes available for only a brief period — for example, if the person is being taken somewhere — at least some of the recordings will make it through.

In the future Witness could become an invaluable tool for activists or journalists living under threat, by contacting help in an emergency and providing evidence of what took place. It also has the potential for preventing violence and impunity in other ways — for example, ROAR for Good, an organization developing wearable technology to reduce violence against women, has expressed interest in the app.

Bernitsas built Witness over the course of 24 hours, an impressive achievement. According to his Twitter account, he plans to release a beta version of the app as early as next week. The ongoing development of Witness is something which civil society organizations and activists should be watching closely.