Sometimes, when confronted by an attacker, even the time it takes to make three jabs of the finger — nine-one-one — is too long.
With PhoneFlare, a new free security app, it takes only a single ripping gesture on the headphone cord to raise an alarm for help.
PhoneFlare, launched by a nonprofit group in August 2016, can be downloaded from both Apple and Google Play at no charge. Targeting primarily college students, but available to anyone, the app activates an alarm when the user either misses a designated check-in time or makes a manual call for help by pulling headphones or another accessory out of a phone’s audio jack or charging port. In either instance, the phone automatically texts designated friends and family and sends them the GPS coordinates of the user’s location. For students at participating colleges and universities, the app also sends a message to the school’s security dispatch.
To help cut down on false alarms, PhoneFlare sends reminders at five-minute intervals as check-in time approaches, giving the user the opportunity to reset the designated check-in time. Once the deadline has passed, PhoneFlare begins sending emergency messages, but the user still has a chance to call it a false alarm and stop the messages.
However, as an additional safeguard against a user’s being coerced by an attacker to turn off the app, the disarm function includes a request to choose a color; an incorrect color choice gives the appearance that the alarm has been disabled, while in actuality it continues to broadcast the user’s GPS coordinates.
Funded entirely by grants and donations, PhoneFlare is the brainchild of app developer and filmmaker Christopher Cinq-Mars Jarvis. As a student at New York University, he became aware of the many issues surrounding campus sexual assault and the need for additional resources to help his female friends.
According to Kristina Clark, spokesperson for PhoneFlare, the original concept dealt with creating a resource that would help gather evidence; hence, PhoneFlare’s option to record audio to the phone and to catalog the UDIDs of nearby devices. Should a user want to retrieve the UDID log, PhoneFlare staff will provide assistance with retrieving the data and emailing it to a personal account.
“After they developed a way to gather potential evidence, the developers came up with the idea of pulling an accessory out of its connection to trigger an alarm as an easy way to call for help,” Clark says. Some of the funds raised to cover PhoneFlare’s operating expenses have gone toward the purchase of so-called “dust plugs,” which are non-functional plugs that can be inserted into a port, then pulled out to raise an alarm. PhoneFlare plans to hand these plugs out free of charge on campuses and also at women’s shelters.
“We are partnering with colleges to make sure this easily accessible resource is communicated to their faculty and students, and we have high schools pushing it out to their students as well,” Clark says, adding that PhoneFlare has also received interest from hospitals and from retirement communities. Although there is no automatic alarm to a security dispatch outside of campus settings, anyone can use the option to have the app send text messages to designated friends and family, along with the user’s GPS coordinates. (A disposable link opens Google Maps and updates the individual’s position every 10 seconds.) For those institutions of higher learning listed in a crowdsourced database — more than 700 have been signed up since August 22 — the automated call to security/law enforcement dispatch relays the students’ verified school email as well as the GPS coordinates.
“We hope this app will continue to grow and evolve as an important resource for sexual assault prevention,” Clark says.