BT’s ‘Walk me home’: tech solutionism at its worst

Magical thinking

It’s all too easy to see a difficult, societal problem and try to solve it with a technological ‘magic wand’. We tend to treat technology as magical a lot of the time – Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, from as far back as 1962, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has a great deal of truth to it, and is the route to a great many problems. This latest one, BT’s idea that women can ‘opt-in’, probably via an app, to being tracked in real-time as they walk home alone, is just the latest in a long series of these kinds of ideas. Click on the app, and you have a fairy godmother watching you, ready to protect you from the evil monsters who might be out to get you.

More surveillance doesn’t mean more security

That’s the essence of this kind of thinking. By tech, we can sort everything out. And, as so often, the method by which this tech will solve everything is surveillance. It’s another classical trap – the idea that as long as we can monitor things, track things, gather more data, we can solve the problems. If only we knew, if only we were able to watch, everything would be OK.

This is the logic that lies behind ideas such as backdoors into encryption – still being touted on a big scale by many in governments all over the world – which mean, just as BT’s ‘walk me home’ would – actually reducing security and increasing risks for most of those involved. Just as breaking encryption will make children more vulnerable, getting women to put themselves under real-time surveillance at their key moments of risk will be likely to make them more vulnerable rather than less.

Look at the downsides….

It will make them easier to identify, and easier to locate – they will be effectively ‘registered’ on the system through downloading and activating the app, it will record their location, their regular routes – and the times they use them, their phone numbers and more. It will identify them as vulnerable – and make them even more of a target.

This, again, is a classical trap of tech solutionism. It’s easy just to look at a piece of tech in terms of how it’s intended to be used, and in terms to the intended user. In this case, that the people tracking the relevant woman will be only people who have her best interests at heart, and who will only intervene in the best way, as the system intends. The good police officer, acting in the best possible way.

All systems – and all data – will be misused

This is in itself magical thinking, and the opposite of the way we should be looking at this. We have to be aware that all systems will be misused. History show this – particularly in relation to technology. Just as one example, there are a whole series of data protection cases involving police officers misusing their ‘authorised’ access to data – from the Bignell case in 1998, where officers used their access to a motor vehicle database to find out details of cars for personal purposes onwards. It must never be forgotten that Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer when he abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard

This kind of a system will also create a database of vulnerable women – together with their personal details, their phone numbers, their home addresses, the routes they take to get home – including when they use them – and that they feel vulnerable coming home. This will be a honeypot of data for any potential stalker – and again, we must not forget that Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer, and that he planned the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard carefully. Systems like this would be a perfect tool for another would-be Wayne Couzens – and also to ‘smaller scale’ creeps and misogynists. The plethora of stories about police officers and others misusing their position to pester women – and worse – that have come out in the wake of the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard should make it abundantly clear that this isn’t a minor concern.

A route to victim-blaming – and infringing women’s rights

Perhaps even more importantly, systems like this are part of a route to blame the victim for the crime. ‘If only she’d used her ‘walk me home’ she would have been OK’ could be the new ‘if only she hadn’t dressed provocatively’. It puts pressure on women to let themselves be tracked and monitored – as well as making it their fault if they don’t use this ‘tool’ to save themselves.

This in itself is an infringement on women’s rights. Not just the right to be safe – which is fundamental – but the right to privacy, to freedom of action, and much more. It’s treating women as though they are like pets, to be microchipped for their own protection, registered on a database so that men can protect them. And if they don’t take advantage of this, well, they deserve what they get.

Avoiding the issue – and avoiding responsibility

All of which brings us back to the real problem: male violence. Tech solutionism is about attempting to use tech to solve societal problems – the societal problem here is male violence. So long as the focus is on the tech, and the tech that can be used by the women, the focus is off the men whose violence is the real problem. And so long as we thing that problem can be solved with an app, we fail to acknowledge how serious a problem it is, how deep a problem it is, and how serious a solution it requires.

It also means that many of those involved avoid taking the responsibility that they have for the problem. The police. The Home Office. Men. Avoiding responsibility has become an art form for the Metropolitan Police, and for Cressida Dick in particular. Some of the officers who shared abusive messages with Wayne Couzens are still working at the Met – and those are just the ones that we know about. This problem is deep-set. It is societal

Societal problems need societal solutions

The bottom line here is that this a massive societal problem – and that is something that won’t be solved by an app. It requires a societal solution – and that isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t something that can be done without pain and sacrifice. The pain and sacrifice, though, should not come from the victims. At the moment, and with ‘solutions’ like BT’s ‘Walk me home’, it is only the victims who are being expected to sacrifice anything. That is straightforwardly wrong.

The starting point should be with the police. That there have been no resignations – least of all from Cressida Dick – is no surprise at all. Beyond a few pseudo-apologies and a concerted attempt to present Couzens as an ‘ex’ police officer, there’s been almost nothing. He was a serving officer when he did the crime. The Met should be facing radical change – if it expects to regain trust, it must change. Societal solutions mean that we need to be able to trust the police.

It is only when we can trust the police that technological tools like BT’s ‘Walk Me Home’ have a chance of playing a part – a small part – in helping women. The trust has to come first. The change in the police has to come first. Without that, we have no chance.