The help signal I created has gone viral. Now it could be misused


In 2020, I helped create the Help Signal, a hand signal that communicates to friends, family and passers-by that “I need you to watch me safely”. Our team promoted the help signal on social media, anticipating a pandemic-related increase in already high rates of gender-based violence, and it went viral in November 2021 during a time fraught with anxiety, directives from stay at home and proliferation of video calling.

Cases of women and girls using Signal for Help to get help in dangerous situations have made headlines. For example, one woman used the help signal during a traffic stop to get help with her abusive husband, and another woman used it to inform staff at a gas station that she was being held against her will by an abusive ex-boyfriend. As a result, well-meaning people have tried to integrate Signal for Help with digital technology. A company with AI camera tools asked how to integrate help signal recognition into its security system, and similar hobbyist attempts were discussed on social media.

The call is clear: auto-detect could be useful for a well-meaning friend or colleague on the other side of a video call who might miss seeing someone using the help signal. It is admirable that people want to help those who might be in danger, but these new applications of technology misunderstand the purpose and use of Signal for Help.

Such efforts are part of a growing trend of using AI to recognize distress: experiments identifying distress in livestock like chickens, cattle and pigs are showing promising results as AI appears to be unraveling a cacophony of cries, clucks and growls of animals better than the naked ear. .

But humans are not chickens or cattle. The intent to abuse and control can turn Luddites into experts. In dangerous relationships, there is always the question of who is in charge of the technology.

The Signal for Help is a deliberately ephemeral tool, designed to help people communicate without saying a word, and without leaving a digital trace. I’m hurt…can’t say it out loud…will you be there for me while I figure it out? Impermanence is an important characteristic, given the way abusers tend to control and manipulate. They hide, track and monitor devices. Women’s shelters routinely help survivors deal with hacked smartphones, unwanted tracking and voice recording apps, hidden cameras, and more. Message boards, social media, and even word of mouth can help abusers rape people they claim to love. In the case of Signal for Help, attackers can use the same AI mechanism designed for security to alert them that the person they are hurting is trying to use Signal for Help.

And there are other issues with AI tools for detecting distress in humans, which include software to analyze student emails and web searches for self-harm and violence, as well as to identify student confusion, boredom and distraction in virtual classrooms. In addition to ethical and privacy concerns, their deployment is based on the belief that we can reliably perceive someone in difficulty and act upon it in a way that will truly help them. These tools operate on a positivist belief that when a human is in distress, they express it outwardly in predictable ways. And when they express it, they desire a specific type of intervention.

But research shows that our assumption that human facial expressions align with emotions is not one we can wholeheartedly believe. Disconnects between body and emotions can be more pronounced in unhealthy relationships. Abused people speak of dissociation, of the need to “leave their bodies” in order to survive. Some refer to the effort they put into concealing their offense, hurt and pain, which they must do to appease the attackers and the bystanders who support them. They talk about how aware they are of every inflection and contraction, the way they chew, blink and breathe, and being punished when they simply exist in a way that irritates their attackers.

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