Feeling Safe Doesn’t Mean You Are: Conflating Alarm/Notification with Prevention

Recently various news stories have trumpeted Kitestring as:  a safety app for women” and “an app that makes sure you get home safe.”   In an April 2014 story, service creator Stephan Boyer explains that he founded Kitestring to keep my girlfriend safe.   Even feminist blog site Jezebel’s headline invoked the claim that Kitestring makes people safer, though the story itself acknowledges that the value of the service is in making women feel safer.

Kitestring is a web-based service that takes on the role of a safety call – when enabled, it notifies pre-designated persons if the user does not check-in within a pre-set time period.  Where other “safety” apps require some positive action in order to sound an alert – bSafe creates a safety alarm button that must be pushed in order to alert others, while Nirbhaya sends out the alarm message when the phone is shaken – Kitestring will send out the alert *unless* the positive action of checking-in is undertaken.   

What we’ve got here is another iteration of the belief that the more information is collected, the more we can know, predict and protect.  And while it’s easier to critique this position when looking at issues like invasive NSA monitoring, even voluntary services like this one have this same logical flaw inherent in them.  In this case, without disregarding the importance of a safety call (via telephone or through any of these services) and of access to services such as this one, equating sounding an alarm with keeping the individual (virtually always identified as female) safe is a dangerous overstatement. 

Public surveillance cameras have long been touted as making public spaces (as well as those within them) safer.  Evidence doesn’t exactly support these claims though – studies looking at CCTV in London, England have consistently found little or no correlation between the presence and/or prevalence of CCTC cameras and crime prevention or reduction.  To put it harshly, public video surveillance (whether recorded or live monitored) won’t prevent me being raped.  The video record of it may be of assistance in identifying the rapist, but even that is uncertain, depending as it does on quality of camera and recording, camera positioning, etc. 

I’m not against services like Kitestring – I want people to know if I don’t get home or somehow fall off the grid.  That said, letting people know I’ve gone missing isn’t the same as preventing the problem in the first place.  Headlines that claim “This New App could’ve Prevented My Friends’ Rape” are optimistic at best, misleading at worst.