Cellphones must have Panic Buttons

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To help protect women, every cellphone sold in India from next year onwards will have to feature “a panic button” configured to the numbers 5 or 9 on the keypad of basic phones. The panic button will be triggered if you press and hold one of those two numbers. It’s not clear which government or police agency will receive the alert yet, though it’s likely to tie in with the government’s efforts to start an emergency helpline number 112 – similar to 911 in the US.

On smartphones, it’s possible currently to download apps like the Delhi Police’s Himmat app and CanvasM for help in emergencies, but the government points out that launching apps can take too long in a crisis. So the new rules say that on smartphones, the please-help alert should be triggered by “pressing [5 or 9] for long time to invoke emergency call, or (with) the use of existing power on or off button, when pressed thrice in quick succession.”

Starting 2018, all cellphone manufacturers will also have to include a GPS in every model to ensure the user’s location can be tracked easily. This could impact the prices of phones.

The new rules, posted by the government here, do not explain who would be dialed when the panic button is hit , and what information needs to be included as part of the call.

Ride-hailing apps in India such as Uber and Ola already include a panic button. When you press the panic button in the Uber app, the local police is immediately called, and information about the trip – GPS location of the cab, and the rider and drivers’ identity and contact information are sent to the police.

To meet the new requirements, every phone maker including giants like Apple and Samsung will have to write software for India that include the panic button configuration. Apple is known to cooperate with governments for country-specific features. For instance, it has removed its FaceTime app (for audio and video chats) from its products sold in the UAE.

While Apple can add the panic button requirements via a relatively simple software update, the situation is much more complex in the Android camp because of the humongous number of companies that make Android phones and use Google’s operating software.

Another area of concern is whether this could delay the launch of certain phones in India. Many smartphones are launched in the US or China before they arrive in India. Adding a separate panic button to Indian variants of the phone – even if it’s done via software – could increase the time these companies take to introduce their phones in India.

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