The rise of security travel apps

App developers may be cashing in on a sense of insecurity wrought by more frequent terrorist events and recent natural disasters such as hurricanes. PHOTO: REUTERS

(NYTIMES) - From transferring money to buying airline tickets, smartphone apps can be a traveller's high-tech multi-tasker. But can they keep travellers safe? A new crop of apps seeks to offer that assurance.

They may be cashing in on a sense of insecurity wrought by more frequent terrorist events, including the truck attack in Lower Manhattan in October, and recent natural disasters such as hurricanes.

"There are more risks now than in the past, but that doesn't make travel more dangerous," said Mr Matthew Bradley, regional director of security for International SOS, a medical and travel security risk services company. He cited the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris as ushering in the risk of terrorism to Europe that was once seen as unlikely.

Still, car accidents and petty crimes such as pickpocketing are much more common travel threats than terrorism or kidnapping. To mitigate these risks, experts advise hiring drivers in foreign countries, carrying little cash and dressing inconspicuously to avoid attracting attention.

"Americans have a lot of tells," said Mr Bruce A. Alexander, a terrorism expert and the former Iraq programme manager in the anti-terrorism office at the State Department. "Leave the San Diego State sweatshirt at home."

Supplementing these practices, security apps deliver incident updates in the location where a user is travelling. Notifications range from supplying country profiles before departure to alerts about disease outbreaks. Many also contain a panic button to summon assistance in an emergency.

While few of these security apps replace travel insurance, which covers the cost of a medical emergency or evacuation, many do provide a range of services designed to keep travellers safe.

Tracking users and triggering cost-free evacuations

A new app from the London-based security firm Drum Cussac, CloseCircle, which is scheduled to be available in December, is designed to act as a security monitor and emergency evacuation service. The app digitally transmits your location to staff at headquarters (the firm says it just uses 3 per cent of your phone's battery power over 24 hours). When an emergency such as a terrorist attack or a hurricane occurs where you are travelling, company employees will call, check in and advise users on avoiding risk and getting out of harm's way. When under threat, users can also engage an SOS button that summons a response from its agents.

Unlike other security apps, CloseCircle membership guarantees a cost-free evacuation in the event of life-threatening danger. The service is backed by an insurance policy that covers the expenses.

"CloseCircle is aiming to be pre-emptive wherever possible and to actually warn members away from dangers that they may not even yet be aware of," Mr Simon Philips, chairman of Drum Cussac, wrote in an e-mail.

Terms: Annual memberships cost £195 (S$351) a person, £349 a couple; and £595 for a family of up to six people;

Tracking users on demand

Developed by Incident Management Group, a firm that specialises in the security of business travellers and individuals, FoneTrac allows users to check in at the press of a button to let the firm and anyone on their designated contact list know that they are fine. The company also monitors security developments worldwide and will send a message to app users if anything from a terrorist attack to an earthquake is going on where they are. In the event of an emergency, a panic button provides the firm your location and triggers ground support.

The app does not track a user's physical location continuously, except in the event of a panic alert when it runs continuously, but inconspicuously, until it is physically turned off.

Terms: US$15 (S$20) a month for a minimum of three months;

Focusing on health and safety

Established in 2012 and available on a mobile app since 2013, Sitata sends out "Trip Alerts" that cover any potentially travel-disrupting event, other than the usual flight delays. These could be disease outbreaks, violent protests, extreme weather or transit strikes. The coverage is global and the firm uses artificial intelligence to monitor the media, traditional and social, to track events worldwide.

Founded by Mr Ron St. John, the former director of emergency preparedness for Canada, and his son Adam St. John, the app was initially developed to disseminate public health information and expanded to more broadly address security. It remains strong in tracking disease outbreaks; the app will even inform users after they have returned from a trip if a disease such as dengue fever has broken out where they were travelling and if there was an incubation period.

"This is important because you may come home and start to feel sick and go to your doctor and forget to say you were in Brazil, which could lead to misdiagnosis," said Mr Adam St. John, chief executive officer of Sitata.

Terms: Free for now, though the company plans to change in 2018 to a modestly priced subscription service;

Emergency alerts in New York and San Francisco

Currently available only in New York and San Francisco, the new app Citizen alerts users to some events that have triggered a 911 call to local authorities. This could be any emergency related to public safety such as a bank robbery, fire or terrorist attack.

If the event takes place within 400m of your location and the app is running, you will receive a push notification with the alert. Users are also able to discuss the incidents among themselves via the app, which displays a map showing where incidents are occurring.

Originally launched as Vigilante, the company quickly rebranded after it became aware the name appeared to incite citizen action. "The name didn't match our goal which is to keep people safe and not to encourage them to intervene and disrupt police officers," said Lea Artz, a spokesman for Citizen.
Terms: Free;

A smartwatch panic button

ADT, the home security company, has announced its intention to follow its customers beyond their homes with its first app, ADT Panic Response, available only on Samsung Gear S2 and Gear S3 smartwatches.

Watch wearers can engage the app in an emergency, which transmits a GPS location and connects to an ADT agent to dispatch help. The service is only available in the United States.

"We like wearables because someone who might go out running tends not to take a smartphone with them because it's bulky and heavy," said Mr Jay Darfler, senior vice-president of emerging markets at ADT. In the running example, he added, the user had turned his ankle in the woods, was unable to walk and summoned help via the watch app. The company plans to launch a related smartphone app next year.

Terms: US$10 a month;

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