The “Emergency Mode” Every Smartphone Should Have
Most smartphones offer limited options for emergency scenarios. You can dial 911, but that system doesn’t always work on cell connections. In some cases, you may be unable to reach an operator. And in most American municipalities, the dispatcher won’t even be able to locate you unless you are able to tell them exactly where you are.
America’s 911 system doesn’t take full advantage of the capabilities most smartphones already have to summon aid in a moment of true crisis. The cameras and microphones now standard on most cell phones can record what’s going on around you in photo, video, and audio, and you can upload your photo, video, or audio clip automatically to the cloud service of your choosing.
Using various methods, your phone can also notify an emergency contact of your current location, and can continue to track that location unless and until its battery dies. Some phones can even wipe their own storage if they sense someone is trying to access your data without your consent, if you activate this setting ahead of time.
An Emergency Mode that can trigger all of these functions simultaneously from the lock screen could help countless people who would otherwise be unable to protect themselves in a worst-case scenario. A mugging victim might be able to locate exactly where the thief headed with their property. A protestor being arrested can’t be compelled by police to unlock their phone with their fingerprint, and there’s already precedent that passcodes and passwords aren’t typically subject to search warrants.
A victim of sexual assault could alert an emergency contact to their location and condition while preserving evidence needed to convict the attacker in a jury trial. A black person being confronted unjustly by police could ensure that their version of the encounter is also being recorded—in a medium that can’t be restricted by pernicious legislation.
A smartphone Emergency Mode wouldn’t be very useful in a crisis situation if it were hidden beneath a convoluted menu system. So it would need to be easy to deploy while the phone is locked and out of sight, but nearly impossible to accidentally activate. One way to do this might be rapidly mashing the lock/power button for at least two seconds straight. Many new smartphones are already equipped with always-on voice recognition, so another way to initiate Emergency Mode could be a spoken trigger phrase: “I need emergency help,” or “Hey Siri, Fire!”
Some of these features could be cobbled together using off-the-shelf operating system features and apps. Some smartphones won’t unlock with a fingerprint after they’ve been reset, or if they haven’t been unlocked for 48 hours or more. Another helpful safety feature that already exists: you can turn on location sharing for friends and family, so they can check in on where you are. You can also turn on a setting in iOS that wipes the phone’s storage after 10 unsuccessful passcode unlock attempts. And the ACLU offers an app that is purpose-built for recording and uploading civilian encounters with law enforcement—but not for other crisis situations. An emergency mode that stitches all of these functions together could make an immediate impact on protecting many of the most vulnerable members of society.
There’s no good way to do this profitably with a standalone app. Besides, without root access on Android or jailbreaking on iOS, there would be no way to bypass the lockscreen to activate this mode using hardware buttons.
Among current phone makers, Samsung is the only one to implement anything like a comprehensive emergency setting on their S5-and-later flagship phones.
If you set up this feature beforehand, pressing the power button three times quickly sends an “SOS message” with your location, a photo taken with the front and rear cameras, and 3 seconds of audio to 3 emergency contacts.
But this feature is only something you'd use if you knew about it before the emergency, and bothered to set it up. It is not part of the default onboarding process, and it’s not available on their lower-end phones. There’s also no option to upload to a cloud service or to continue recording past 3 seconds. This makes it less useful for gathering evidence.
We’d like to see other phone makers follow Samsung’s lead, but ultimately, it’s up to Google and Apple to make it happen across all phones using their respective OSes.
It could be argued that there is not much of a business case for implementing this sort of a feature set, but I’m optimistic it will happen. It needs to happen. After all, Google’s recently-modified corporate motto states their obligation to society in clear terms: “Do the right thing.”
Michael Zhao is a Senior Associate Editor at The Wirecutter. @Twitter, Instagram.
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