Coping With Unsafe Campuses: Maybe Phones, Not Guns

Mar 29 2014, 9:56am CDT | by

Coping With Unsafe Campuses: Maybe Phones, Not Guns
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

College can be a wonderful experience. But no environment is absolutely safe. Tragically, shootings, date rape, stalking, alcohol induced fights, and other predatory and violent incidents occur on campuses. Some see guns as the solution—letting students carry firearms to protect themselves. Just look at what’s happening in Minnesota, Idaho, and Oklahoma. Maybe a better way forward, however, is to arm students with a different technology: smartphones loaded with safety apps.

My university, Rochester Institute of Technology, uses TigerSafe (available on Android and iOS) developed by alumnus Eric Irish, currently Founder and CEO of CampusSafe, LLC. The app provides three functions: inform, report, and assist.

After clicking on ‘inform,’ you’re one touch away from Public Safety’s general and emergency response phone numbers—as well as information about crime prevention, reporting lost items, crime stats, and crime alerts.

After clicking on ‘report,’ you’re one touch away from solving medium-priority issues: being able to lodge noise complaints, convey that you need a jumpstart or escort, or alert Public Safety that you’re locked out of your car. The GPS feature provides precise information of where you’re located, thus bypassing the need to figure out exactly where you are and find the right words to convey it. Moreover, because the information is transmitted without needing to speak to a Public Safety Officer, it can minimize anxiety for students who would be anxious to make a phone call.

Clicking on ‘assist’ brings you to the most powerful function—a digital age version of the blue light buttons that are scattered throughout campus. By pushing it, Public Safety is informed that you’re in an emergency situation. They receive relevant details, including your contact and location information, and are prepared to speak with you via phone or text messages.

One way to judge the value of a technology is to assess the level of access people have to it. Since not every student has a smart phone, that’s clearly a limitation.

But the app isn’t replacing physical blue lights—it’s a supplemental service that simply adds new communication channels. Moreover, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is located at RIT, and this means a good percentage of the student body is not well served by the design constraints of services that require verbally communicating with Public Safety.

I asked Eric Irish about the privacy implications of Campus Safe. He said:

“The age old question in the quest for privacy is that of security vs. convenience. With greater security, our ability to complete a task or access information is slowed with more steps and checks, decreasing convenience and ease of use.  Although I’m biased, I would like to think that CampusSafe doesn’t sacrifice one for the other… Campus Safety, like any police force, can be subject to undue characterization as ‘Big Brother.’ By offering an opt-in, transparent service like CampusSafe that increases convenience and access Public Safety can engage with their constituents in a positive way.”

For those of you interested in specifics, here’s what else he told me:

“An app like CampusSafe that deals so heavily in location acquisition is bound to face some scrutiny in privacy and security concerns, but we’ve had this in mind from the beginning. To satisfy the technical data exchange, CampusSafe runs on Google App Engine over HTTPS with SSL encryption. This is an enterprise-level deployment that can scale and defend with the same power of the Google services it runs: namely, YouTube. With the natural safeguards found in the iOS and Android operating systems, CampusSafe is transparent and indicative when one’s location is being acquired. CampusSafe does allow users to send along some optional information that would help emergency responders in the event of a bluelight press. For this possibly sensitive information, we modeled its delivery off of similar information that might be found on a bracelet or in one’s wallet. The optional assistance information is stored locally on the user’s smartphone, and only in the event of a bluelight press is it sent along with the report to Public Safety. This means that CampusSafe stores no personal information prior to a report, greatly increasing the security of such information.”

Some people will argue that in extreme situations every second counts and a smart phone isn’t enough. But we don’t know yet how much of a deterrent technology like CampusSafe will be if widely adopted. If the promise of the digital age is to be reached, that’s information we desperately need.

Source: Forbes Business


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