SOCIETY

Do Date Rape Apps Make You Safer or Just Freak Out Your Friends?

First semester is high season for sexual assault on campus. Of course, there's an app for that now. But personal safety tech comes with its own set of risks—like social suicide. We test drove the top five apps

Aug 15, 2014 at 7:11 AM ET

At colleges around the country, the beginning of the school year also marks the start of a high season for sexual assault. According to a Justice Department study, the majority of incidents occur between the first day of registration and Thanksgiving break, a period that’s known as the “Red Zone.” The study also found that incoming freshman are particularly vulnerable, which is why many schools have introduced mandatory crash courses on sexual assault during orientation. But avoiding jungle juice in frat-house basements can only protect you so much, what you really need, apparently, is…an app.

A fleet of new anti-sexual-assault apps for your phone claim to offer peace of mind with one-touch shortcuts that alert friends or law enforcement that you need help. The concept hinges primarily on what experts call “bystander interventions,” where a third party steps in to get the victim out of an uncomfortable situation.

Like you, we wanted to know how an app could ever be more convenient than, say, screaming or dialing 911. That moment you’re being cornered by a creepy dude in a bar or bedroom just doesn’t seem ideal for fumbling through your iPhone trying to find an app you’ve never used. That’s what Tasers are for! Also, what if you battery dies? Or you don’t have service?

It’s obviously a good thing that developers are thinking about ways technology can help with such a serious national issue. The more resources we have, the better. But you’re still probably better off taking a self-defense class than relying on one of these apps to get you out of harm’s way. For now, at least, they seem to cause more problems than they solve—but there are a few great ideas in the mix. We took the top five in the category for a test drive.

Circle of Six

This app was one of the winners of the Apps Against Abuse challenge issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, and was designed specifically for college students. The cliquiest of the options, Circle of Six asks you to select up to six people “you can count on to have your back.” If you can’t think of six friends who would drop everything to come rescue you, then you better go make some before you get started.

The app provides you with three different alerts to send out to your circle in moments of need. The first, represented by a car icon, sends a message asking your friends to come pick you up, along with your GPS location. (The temptation to use this feature in non-emergency situations greatly increases after a few drinks.)

The second alert, signified by a phone icon, sends out a message asking your circle to call you so you have an excuse to remove yourself from a situation. Celebrities do this all the time, except they just put the phone up to their ear and pretend someone’s there—that seems a lot easier to us.

The third option is simply baffling. When you press what looks like a conversation bubble, it sends out a text to all six of your friends that reads, “I’m looking up information about healthy relationships and respect. Just letting you know.” As to why an automated message like this is necessary, or why anyone would ever want to send it, the developers explain that it “keeps your circle informed of what’s on your mind,” whatever that means. What it will definitely do is keep people informed that you’re kind of a drag and super weird. Too serious and desperate for attention—the worst kind of drama queen. They should change the icon on this feature to a mushroom cloud and call it the nuclear option, because if you put your finger on that button more than once and aren’t pranking, you’re gonna need six new friends pretty fast.

Guardly

The instant you open this app, you activate a ticking time bomb with a 10-second countdown on the clock that will alert all of your emergency contacts via email, text message and phone call if you don’t defuse it. Nine. Eight. Is your finger a little dry? Six. Having trouble unlocking your iPhone screen? Four. Three. SHIT. Too late, MacGruber! The police are on their way.

Stopping the timer once it starts is hard enough even when you open Guardly on purpose, but there’s also the very real possibility of butt opening the app and not even knowing it. Better yet, the alerts invite everyone in your list to an online “Emergency Response Page” where they can “collaborate” on how to solve your emergency. (Dad, who’s having heart attack: “Kick him in the balls!” BFF: “OMG are you OK?”)

Think about how many times you’ve accidentally opened the Facebook app when you meant to hit Twitter. The likelihood of you unnecessarily freaking out all of your friends and family with this app are far greater than your chances of actually needing it.

On Watch

Another White House winner, On Watch is the only one of these apps that costs money, so it’s an automatic thumbs-down. It’s $2.99 a month, or $19.99 a year, which is really quite a lot compared with free. It has all the various features of the other apps (one-touch buttons, emergency alerts, etc.), but you can also set off a siren or a flashing light if you’re in really desperate circumstances. Nothing your flashlight app and some vocal chords can’t handle.

bSafe

The best in the category, bSafe allows you to choose as many or as few emergency contacts as you want. It’s also the savviest. With the touch of one button, you can set off a siren, send emergency calls and text messages to your friends, and your phone automatically starts recording video and voice in case you ever need to use it as evidence. The recordings are all stored on bSafe’s secure severs alongside your GPS location and time stamps, which you can give to the police. You can also invite friends to “walk you home” by following you via GPS and set up fake call alerts to get out of sticky situations.

Kitestring

Apart from winning the best name award, Kitestring works for two reasons: It’s simple as hell, and you don’t have to have a smartphone to use it. The service functions entirely through text messaging and is designed to check in on you after a designated period of time. All you have to do is sign up on the company’s website, add some emergency contacts and enter a time you would like them to check in on you. The only issue arises if you’re as forgetful as this reporter and don’t “check in” once you’ve arrived in one piece. Then Kitestring automatically sends a text to your emergency contacts announcing that you “might not have made it back safely.” Sorry, Mom.