India will require physical panic buttons on all mobile phones to prevent violence against women


In a bid to prevent crimes against women, all mobile phones sold in India will be required to have a physical panic button installed by the beginning of next year. Department of Telecommunications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Twitter that the new rule will go into effect in January 2017. When pressed, the panic button will send an alert to police and people chosen by the phone’s user.

All handsets will also need to be equipped with location-based technology by 2018.

Panic buttons will be activated on feature phones by pressing the “5” or “9” key; on smartphones, by pressing the power button three times. Devices sold before the rule goes into effect can be upgraded at service centers.

There are already several safety apps designed specifically for women in Indiaand ride-sharing apps like Uber and Ola added safety buttons last year after several high-profile incidents, including the rape of a female passenger by an Uber driver.

A release by the Indian government’s Press Information Bureau said regulators decided a physical panic button is better than an app, however, because “a woman in distress does not have more than a second or two to send out a distress message as a perpetrator will often reach out to her mobile phone in the event of a physical/sexual assault.”

The Ministry of Women and Child Development began advocating the panic button feature two years ago. India has taken several other steps recently to improve emergency responses, including setting a single number—112—for all emergency calls. This will replace the current system, which requires separate numbers for different services (like 100 for police, 101 for the fire department, and 102 for ambulances, etc.). In some states, there are also helplines specifically to combat violence against women, which is on the rise in India.

Helplines and panic buttons are a start, but there is no guarantee that they will help reduce crimes like rape. For one thing, about 70 percent of incidents are committed in homes by people known to victims, which makes them harder to prevent. Furthermore, the majority of sexual assaults are still unreported because of stigma and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system—issues that can’t be solved by a button or phone number.

Manufacturers have also expressed concerns that mandatory GPS will increase the cost of devices, pricing them out of range for some consumers.