Personal safety apps may create a false sense of security

Personal safety apps are a new response to the age-old need to feel secure.

They are marketed as a means to peace of mind, often allowing trusted contacts to locate users, either continuously or in case of emergency. But are they all they are claimed to be?

Most use two technologies to find your phone. One relies on triangulating GSM radio signals exchanged between your phone and cell masts. The other is GPS. The idea is if one doesn’t work the other does.

GPS is more accurate, and works in rural areas where masts are few and far between. But neither works underground, underwater or within densely built-up environments. If both fail, the only option would be a Wi-Fi link to a nearby router – far from guaranteed.

Supercool locator

Given these weaknesses, researchers are working on new locating technologies. The one showing the most promise so far is a technique that uses supercooled atoms as a highly sensitive accelerometer to track movement and plot location without triangulation. It is now being tested in submarines, and the hope is it will be miniaturised.

But there are other shortcomings to safety apps. Using a phone in risky situations raises the risk of unwanted attention and theft, plus phones can get lost or damaged during altercations.

Fear also hits cognitive processing and reduces dexterity, which make use of some apps at a moment of panic challenging. These problems add to the argument for not relying on them in an emergency.

Discreet wearables

Security specialists dismiss the idea of phones as safety devices. Much better, they say, are discreet, wearable …

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