In the wake of the police killing of Sarah Everard in London last year, the UK’s Home Office—the ministerial department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order—has endorsed an app that tracks women’s journeys home and will partner with police “to establish problem areas that may need more resources,” The Guardian reports.
The Home Office’s backing of the app, Path Community, has predictably drawn intense backlash from women’s rights activists, for a number of obvious reasons.
According to The Guardian, Path Community, which is currently being trialled by more than 500 users in the UK right now, including London police officers, “provides anyone walking home at night with a monitored route on their phone”— and if the walker moves more than 40 [meters] from the route or stops for more than three minutes, the app asks if they are OK.
“If there is no reply, nominated ‘guardians’ receive a notification on their phones to say there has been a deviation,” The Guardian explains. They can then check on the person in question and alert the police if they are unable to do so.”
The app sounds well-meaning enough—walking home at night for women can range from anxiety-inducing to fatal. But advocates and groups like Reclaim the Streets, which was created shortly after Everard’s death, are frustrated that the app seems to place the onus of preventing violence against women on women, as if their individual behaviors can stop an endemic societal issue.
“The Home Office backing of this app is insulting to women and girls,” Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim the Streets, told The Guardian. “We already share our location, we already ask our friends to text us when they get home, we already wear bright clothes, stick to the well-lit routes and clutch our keys between our fingers.”
According to Birley, these behaviors still haven’t been “enough,” and “the steps that [women] take to stay safe every day, are not the problem. The problem is that male violence makes us unsafe.”
One feature of Path Community creates routes for users that avoid unlit streets and alleys, or supposed “problem” areas that users can report as unsafe. The notably male founder of the app told The Guardian that this data will be shared with local city councils and police to determine areas that “may need more resources” — which sure sounds a lot like “more police.”
The twisted irony of the app’s option for “guardians” to alert officers and its partnerships and data-sharing with local police is that Everard was stalked, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a London officer who had abused the power of his occupation to harm her. The tone-deafness and lack of logic behind the app is reminiscent of a report from shortly after Everard’s death that plain-clothes, London police officers would patrol bars and clubs in the city to “protect” women from violence. The report notably came as photos surfaced of police brutalizing mostly female demonstrators protesting police violence after Everard’s death.
Government campaigns in the UK to address violence against women in the streets since Everard’s killing have thus far seemed willfully ignorant of who, exactly, killed her. Street violence against women can certainly be perpetrated by random, dangerous, male strangers, as the UK’s Home Office seems to believe. But the mythologized concept of “stranger danger” is largely pro-cop propaganda to justify more policing; it ignores how most sexual violence is perpetrated by intimate partners, and most victims often know their attacker. Gender-based violence is also widely perpetrated by police officers—in the US, sexual abuse is the second-most common act of police misconduct, with women of color and queer and trans people more vulnerable. Some studies have found at least 40% of officers are domestic abusers.
Speaking of domestic violence, other UK-based critics of Path Community and the Home Office’s endorsement of it have pointed out that safety apps that involve surveillance can be and often are weaponized by abusers, Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, told The Guardian.
Path Community told the newspaper that its tracking option only lasted for the duration of a specific, set journey, and users would be contacted first for permission to notify a guardian. The app also specified that it’s working on creating a toggle option to turn live tracking on and off. But tracking even for one, set journey can be enough to put a domestic violence victim’s life at risk, if their abuser learns they deviated 40 meters from a specific trip, or if their abuser’s suspicions are aroused when a victim turns off the app’s tracker.
There aren’t easy solutions to addressing systemic, gender-based violence, especially on the streets and in our communities. But as advocates have pointed out, there’s something not quite right about an app that implies women can simply modify their behaviors to avoid victimization, or that women have never previously considered just sharing their locations with trusted friends and family. Nor is increased surveillance ever a substitute for meaningful investments in cultural change and resources to prevent gender-based violence and support victims.