Fashion

04.15.13

Can This Bracelet Save Your Life?

A new device promises to send a social-media blast when an aid worker is in danger. But will it work?

Human-rights workers operate under incredibly dangerous circumstances. The last thing you’d expect to keep them out of harm’s way? A bracelet.

Civil Rights Defenders, a Stockholm-based human-rights group with people on the ground in some of the world’s most dire areas, has launched the “Natalia Project,” with the idea of protecting its most endangered workers.

The project is focused on a single device: a black or orange bracelet of connecting squares, that features the Civil Rights Defenders logo in heavy type. With the touch of a button, the GPS-equipped accessory is programmed to send an alarm to law enforcement, five nearby colleagues, and, perhaps most innovatively, a social-media blast to the Internet. When the bracelet is triggered or forcibly removed, an alert is routed through the Civil Rights Defenders headquarters, which then sends it via email, SMS texts, and the organization’s social-media sites to followers who sign up to receive alerts. The blast, particularly shareable via Twitter and Facebook, allows people from across the world to react and spread news as a potentially threatening situation unfolds. Robert Hårdh, the group’s executive director, likens it to wearing “millions of people around the world on your wrist.”

That’s the goal, at least. It’s named after human-rights worker Natalia Estemirova, who was murdered in 2009 while investigating abuses in Russia’s dangerous North Caucasus. The project is still in its infancy, but the hashtag #NataliaProject has already racked up nearly a thousand tweets from supporters. So far, the bracelet has only been given to five Civil Rights Defender employees, who will wear it where it all began, in the turbulent North Caucasus. (The devices are expected to be up and running within the next few weeks, after the wearers are trained and individualized protocols are implemented for each.)

“The World Is Watching,” says a bold-faced message on the campaign’s homepage. As sites like Change.org and Reddit are producing real-world effects, Hårdh hopes the powerful online momentum behind the bracelets will act as a “virtual protection shield” around on-the-ground workers. He hopes that the global attention will create pressure and attention on corrupt governments.

The bracelet is like wearing “millions of people around the world on your wrist.”

In recent months, gadgets have been designed to protect people in different areas of the world. There is an alarm-sounding wristwatch for sexual assault the Indian government is said to be developing—along with shock-transmitting lingerie that also sends a signal to the nearest police department when a woman receives unwanted sexual advances. But some in the aid community feel ambivalent about the wave of technological advances. “Typically in the humanitarian-aid industry we can be a little resistant to new technologies unless they’re proven,” says Jonathan Thompson, a technology and humanitarian specialist who has worked in logistics for Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations. “We don’t want to put guys out in the field with something that's going to break.” Knowledge of the bracelet could be a risk, he notes. If, in a kidnapping or robbery situation, the abductors demand the bracelet be handed over at gunpoint, “you're probably going to take it off,” he says.

Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch stationed in Kabul, says she would be more likely to use something a bit less conspicuous. “Having a logo on it that makes it identifiable and recognizable might make it more difficult to wear,” she says. But a GPS-capable alarm system does make sense, she says, and “the more people who are thinking about this, the better.”

Hårdh is careful not to exaggerate expectations, calling the new device a complement, not a cure. He says it’s “nowhere near a foolproof system,” but insists that the bracelet is less a gadget and more a system. Each bracelet is set up on a case-by-case basis and comes with an individually tailored security plan depending on the worker’s location, risk, and threats. For example, it won’t do much good to have an alert go to the local police department if the threats come from the police in the first place. 

Barr, who joined Human Rights Watch from the United Nations two years ago, notes that in general, aid workers are more likely to have highly structured security in place, while human-rights workers prefer inconspicuousness, relying on their own judgment and intuition. “The threats vary a lot not just one country to the next, but one region or one community to the next,” she says. She points out that in insurgent areas like Afghanistan, “you have no luck at all trying to hold them publicly accountable,” and a blast to Twitter, Facebook, and the accompanying media can be counterproductive in rescuing a kidnapped worker.

On the other hand, if the threat is coming from a hostile government, the world’s attention is exactly what you want. “We saw during the Arab Spring how hostile governments have used technology to crack down on activists, so if there’s a way for activists to use technology to crack down on bad governments, at least that would even the playing field a little,” she says.

Kathryn Mahoney, who just finished a nine-month stint with the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yida, South Sudan, says that because of U.N. peacekeepers guarding the refugee camp, she never felt threatened. But it’s reassuring “to see an organization developing technology that seeks to provide potentially life-saving protection to those fighting for the rights of others,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Beast. “It would be a positive step for humanitarian agencies to assess and adopt innovative technologies that could provide enhanced security to their staff deemed at risk.”

But for now, the major barrier to proliferation of the potentially life-saving technology is its hefty price tag. Civil Rights Defenders aims to outfit 55 human-rights workers with the bracelets by 2014, but estimates that will cost a total of $300,000 a year. “There are so many things connected to alarms it’s difficult to separate it and put a price tag on it,” Hårdh says. He explains that the physical product is inexpensive, but accompanying security platforms tailored to each wearer’s location constitutes a bulk of the cost, along with staff for 24-hour monitoring of the devices. At the moment, Civil Rights Defenders hopes much of the funding will come from its online fundraising campaign and perhaps corporate partnerships. 

Hårdh foresees a future where the program is adopted by other beneficiaries and given to aid workers and journalists in sensitive areas. But with the currently steep price point, the penny-pinching aid communities need to know this device is worth the cash that could be going to other necessary supplies. Thompson, who thinks the tool would be applicable to aid work as well as the human-rights field, says workers usually find that the most rudimentary form of security is the most reliable. “If you're down to relying on a single device, then something's wrong,” he says. “Hopefully one will surface as extremely reliable and become the Toyota Land Cruiser of technology.”

“Or the Nokia phone with the flashlight,” Barr adds. While some human-rights workers utilize GPS and satellite devices, “some of us are running around with a notepad and a ballpoint pen,” she says, laughing. “Technology can never be a replacement for good planning, security awareness, and good advice from local people.”