With another case on the news of a Metropolitan police officer inflicting shocking levels of violence on women, one can’t help but be reminded of the tragic case of Sarah Everard in 2021, and the slew of violent attacks on women that appeared to follow.
WalkSafe, which saw a significant upswing in the wake of these events, was officially launched just last month, and brings into question the complex relationship between technology and women’s safety. As of December 2021, the WalkSafe app had more than 560,000 downloads and is now the most downloaded personal safety app in the UK. This appears to show us that women’s safety in the UK is very much under threat, and women are turning to technology for help.
Women utilising technology to safeguard themselves isn’t a new phenomenon. For years, women have employed basic mobile apps as a measure to feel safer in a variety of ways; messaging their friends when they’re home; calling someone whilst walking alone at night; checking each other’s locations on Find My Friends. There have also long been Personal Attack Alarms and self-defence keychains, as well as numerous hotlines and emergency phone numbers that attempt to ensure the protection of women in public and at home.
From an online perspective, there have been various safeguarding measures introduced over time that help to protect the safety of women, amongst others, to some extent. The ability to report and block people from social media platforms, optionally hide personal information and limit location services are all non-specific examples of ways that women have been harnessing technology to maintain their safety for years.
However, with the development of many new technological methods for women’s protection, some of the above are now perceived as dated and increasingly ineffective in the face of male violence towards women.
After the widely publicised attacks on women that marred much of 2021, there has been a significant upsurgence in technologies aimed exclusively at improving women’s safety.
By far the most prevalent new technology coming to the aid of women are apps providing more extensive and streamlined approaches to women’s safeguarding. WalkSafe appears to be the app seeing the highest uptake and recognition, but there are many more in development.
Epowar is a smartwatch fitness app for women that monitors heart rate and body motion to determine whether the user is in distress. bSafe, developed by Rich Larsen in response to the assault of his daughter, contains a voice-activated alarm feature which triggers live-streaming video, audio, and recordings. PathCommunity recommends safe walking routes and highlights areas with highcrime rates or areas flagged to councils and police.
In other areas, StreetSafe is a new government-mandated method of attempting to establish unsafe areas to the public, specifically women and girls. Whether it be due to poor lighting, lack of police presence or overgrown vegetation, individuals can make an anonymous submission regarding the perceived safety of an area. Meanwhile, the new online safety bill will place duties of care on the tech companies behind platforms such as Twitter andTikTok, to protect users from harmful content, with the threat of heavy fines if they fail to do so effectively.
However, this sudden upsurge in safety apps and technology is causing further contention, with many left concerned about increased risks to women’s safety as a result, and what this signifies on a deeper societal level.
What are the risks?
There have long been sinister risks associated with technology regarding women’s safety. Online especially, women are disproportionately affected by abuse and harassment. David Carrick is just the most recent highly publicised case of women being targeted online, and many have spoken out that the new online safety bill does not do enough to protect women from this type of danger.
New app technology, whilst also being harnessed for good, can also threaten the safety of women in very real ways. Any app that relies heavily on GPS presents a dangerous opportunity to track a woman’s live location, whilst new Spyware technology can be used to observe women through phonecameras and microphones.
Emerging technology for women’s safety has also been criticised as “temporary sticking plasters” over the real issue at hand. Between innovative apps and government initiatives, there is a concern that these proposals are just a distraction from the fact that, in reality, very little is being done to combat male violence against women in the UK, and new technology is merely treatingthe symptoms of what is a deeply systemic issue that requires addressing.
Over the past few years, technology has come a long way in its role as a safeguarding technique for women in the UK. Basic and non-specific measures have given way to tailored and highly efficient apps and initiatives aimed at helping women to feel safer in any environment. However, whilst this could be seen as a step in the right direction, such technological advancements carry severe safety risks and are being viewed as merely an appeasement in an attempt to gloss over a deeply entrenched societal issue.
With or without new technology, male violence towards women will undoubtedly continue without addressing its root cause. However, the impact of new technology should not be underestimated. There are now new ways for women to take extra steps to ensure their safety, and from a psychological perspective, even helping women to feel safer is an improvement.
All things considered, it is clear that a multifaceted approach needs to be devised to effectively protect women from violence in the UK, because evidently our current methods aren’t working.