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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Best Personal Safety Devices, Apps, and Alarms

A lot of women have heard the same safety warnings from a young age: Don't go anywhere alone. Never leave a drink unattended. Check your car's back seats and lock your doors immediately after getting in. This focus on personal responsibility, of course, tends to overlook the responsibility of those who do the harm, and it assumes that others nearby might not be able (or willing) to help—which is also an important part of the conversation about personal safety. But many of us still feel the need to put up our guard or have come up with hacks to protect ourselves in potentially threatening situations.

I asked WIRED staffers and friends what they do to protect themselves in dicey situations, and I got a wide range of responses—everything from walking with keys held between their fingers in case they need to fight someone off, to carrying pocket knives and pepper spray, to simply talking on the phone with a friend until they’re safe. But as technology writers, the Gear team wondered if there was something better, a way for all this tech we already carry with us—our phones, our smartwatches—to provide an assist.

Over the past month we’ve tested built-in smartphone functions, third-party apps, internet-connected jewelry, and other wearables designed to get you in contact with help when you need it. None of these products provides a comprehensive solution for every scenario, but they each offer some form of protection. In some localities, it's illegal to carry a concealed weapon like a knife or pepper spray, and using those things can put you in further danger. So the methods we highlight here are an alternative to brandishing a weapon. And most of the products are capable of signaling your need for help without requiring you to speak to anyone, so you don't have to dial a number or voice your concern aloud when it would be unsafe for you to do so.

We approached our testing with inclusivity in mind, acknowledging that different groups may have different personal safety needs or feel vulnerable in situations where others don’t. While we think women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community would benefit from some of these products the most, cisgender straight men are also at risk of violence, even if they don’t hear the same warnings we do.

Table of Contents

Medea Giordano is the lead reviewer for this guide. Louryn Strampe and Adrienne So also tested some devices and shared advice on products they already use.

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Before You Buy Anything …

Before you take the plunge and invest in one of these personal safety products or become entirely reliant on a piece of software, here are a few general guidelines to follow:

  1. Test it first. A complicated new device won’t do you any good if the first time you use it is during a tense or panicked situation. As soon as you unbox the product or install the app, you should go through test runs of setting off alarms, sending your location to a friend, or activating any kind of SOS feature in the product.
  2. Talk, talk, talk. To that last point, if the product you’re using promises to connect you to emergency services, give this a dry run. (Most companies account for test runs. Just be sure to complete the call and communicate to the service that you're OK.) And if you list certain friends as emergency contacts within an app, give your friends a heads-up and make sure they also know what to do when they're alerted.
  3. Have it ready. Whatever type of product you're using, it will only work if it's quickly accessible. If you find yourself on a solo jog, walking home alone at night, or navigating a dark parking lot, have your device in hand. You won't always have time to dig through your bag.
  4. Stay vigilant. Don't let the promise of technology lull you into letting your guard down. Two key principles of self-defense training are being aware of your surroundings and trusting your instincts.
  5. And remember … Even the best product isn't foolproof. Your phone’s battery can die, or the phone could be stolen. Devices that rely on data or Wi-Fi signals are useless if you’re out of range. Location-tracking services can be used against you by abusive partners. Apps might store your location and contacts on their servers, which means you might be exchanging a bit of privacy to use some of them. Only share your location with people you absolutely trust not to use it against you, or who know you and your patterns well enough that they won't overreact and send police to your location when you're simply stuck in a meeting or taking a nap.

Safety Features Your Phone Already Has

Your smartphone has at least two built-in safety features that work without requiring you to download or buy anything extra: location sharing and emergency calling. To use these built-in safety features on your phone, follow these instructions:

  1. iPhone: If you have an iPhone, you can share your location with other iPhone users by going to their contact card and selecting Send My Current Location or Share My Location. With the latter, you can choose a time frame: indefinitely, until the end of the day, or for one hour. iPhones also have an emergency call feature that is activated by holding down the power button and one of the volume buttons. You can slide the SOS slider for an instant call, or keep holding down the buttons to automatically place a call to 911, which will happen after a five-second countdown.
  2. Android (most other phones): You can use Google Maps to share your location with friends by choosing Location Sharing under your account icon in the top right (on the iPhone app, you’ll find this in the menu in the top left). Unlike the fairly uniform iPhone, Android phones, including Samsung Galaxy devices, come in varying sizes and shapes and receive Android software updates at different times, but if you have an Android phone from the last few years it should have some form of an emergency call system. Check for it now, before you need it.

Pretty much all smartphones now offer an emergency call feature from the lock screen, so you can call 911 without having to unlock your phone. Calls to 911 should also work on most smartphones if you don't have service or a SIM card, as long as you're close enough to a cellular signal, be it your own wireless carrier or another. It’s similar to how you can use a pay phone to call 911 without feeding it any quarters.

The obvious downside to relying on your smartphone is that if it dies or is shut off, you can’t make any phone calls or share your location with a trusted contact. So if you notice your battery is low and you sense you might be in danger, you should quickly send your current location, so your trusted contact has a starting point. If you’d rather not use continuous tracking, you could text a trusted friend a photo of the map you’re using, like if you’re going out for a solo hike; that way, if you don’t arrive at your destination, friends or authorities can at least try to trace your steps.

A Great General Safety App


I've tried several safety apps, and I’ve found Noonlight to be the best. It's super simple to use, downloads are available for iOS and Android, and the free versions include more than enough features for most users. All you have to do is press your finger on the onscreen button if you feel unsafe. After releasing your finger, the app will wait 10 seconds for you to enter a PIN number, in case it was a false alarm. If you don’t enter your PIN, Noonlight will first attempt to contact you over the phone, and if you don’t answer the call, the company will then contact local authorities and direct them to your location.

The iOS version of Noonlight includes two additional free features that I like: Timeline and Safety Network. Your Timeline can be filled out with details about your activities, like who you're going on a Tinder date with and where; you can even add a photo of their profile. You can also indicate if you’re doing anything out of the ordinary from your usual schedule, like house-sitting, working late, or traveling to a new location. If you activate the Noonlight button, your Timeline will be sent to authorities, along with your location.

When you add contacts to the app’s Safety Network, these people can check in on you and send local help to your last known location. And your contacts won't have to download the Noonlight app; they can access all of the relevant information on the company’s website.

Download Noonlight on the App Store or Google Play.

The sad reality is that some people may also feel they need protection from the police, and they may not want to trigger calls to the authorities. We’ve included suggestions below for apps and devices that will contact only your predetermined friends in an emergency, as well as an app that records interactions with police.

A Running App to Share Your Location With Friends


Even going out for a solo jog can make you vulnerable to potentially dangerous situations, especially for women. The Strava app might help.

Strava is a social network for workouts, used mostly to record long bike rides or runs, and it may even be an app you already use. Strava has a helpful feature called Beacon that shares your real-time location with whoever you choose, along with what time you started your activity, how long you've been active, and your phone's battery percentage. If you set up a check-in time with your chosen friend, they'll know when it's time to get worried. They can then share your GPS map with the police.

However, the Beacon feature is only available if you pay $5 per month for the premium version of Strava.

Download Strava on the App Store or Google Play.

An App for Recording the Police

Mobile Justice

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ma'Khia Bryant, and many others have only underscored that for many Americans—particularly Black Americans—there’s the very real risk of being harmed by the use of force by police. So even defaulting to apps that promise to “contact the authorities” when you’re in danger assumes a certain amount of privilege: It means your experience is such that you believe the authorities will protect you, not hurt you. But as we know, that is not everyone’s experience.

That’s where an app like Mobile Justice may be helpful. The app records your interaction with police, streaming the video to your chosen contacts and your local ACLU chapter. If you feel your rights have been violated during the interaction, you can then fill out an incident report for the ACLU with the location information, name of the police agency involved, and a detailed explanation of what happened. You’ll need cell service or Wi-Fi for the app to work, but you can record on your phone and send an incident report later if needed. The Mobile Justice app isn’t just for people who are being pulled over or treated with unnecessary force; others can use the app to record incidents they’re witness to.

We know this isn't a perfect solution, and that even capturing concrete video evidence doesn’t necessarily mean a citizen is protected or that justice will be served if harm is done. But it is well within your rights to record interactions with law enforcement. As is outlined in the rights section of the app, officers cannot view or delete footage or confiscate your phone without a warrant; and demanding that you stop recording is against your First Amendment rights. Third parties can legally record an interaction with police and someone else, as long as they are not interfering with what’s happening or obstructing officers’ movements.

There's more helpful information within the app about your rights in different situations, whether you’re being stopped by the police or participating in a protest, as well as alerts from your local ACLU.

Download Mobile Justice on the App Store or Google Play.

A Bracelet That Triggers a Fake Phone Call

Flare Bracelet

I’ve tested five safety-specific wearables over the last few years, and the Flare bracelet stood out. For one, it actually looks like a bracelet, not a tracking device. The $129 Flare comes in a beaded or cuffed design, with a few different options for metal finishes. Its design hides an SOS button that you'd really have to be searching for to find—whoever you're trying to get away from won't know you've set anything off. Press the button once if you’d like to receive a fake phone call, the type of which you determine in the app, like a roommate who needs you or a partner checking in. It comes from a real number that the app prompts you to save in your contacts, adding a fake name that gets displayed when the phone rings.

That’s helpful if someone is simply being a nuisance. But when you’re in a dangerous situation where a fake call isn’t enough, you can hold down the Flare button to send a message and your location to your selected contacts. Flare has also established a partnership with Noonlight, so you can set up the Flare device (through the app) to call 911 when you hold the button down. You'll get a text and call immediately, and if you can't answer, your location is shared with first responders in your area. If you set it off accidentally, the operator will ask for personal identifiers like the spelling of your last name and phone number, so they know it's really you.

Flare is currently available only for iPhone users; an Android version is in the works, but the company hasn’t said when it will be available. The battery isn't rechargeable, which the company says was an intentional design choice to avoid any frustration with having to constantly recharge the thing. But the bracelet is guaranteed to last one year, and depending on usage could last as long as two years. After that, you'll have to purchase an entirely new bracelet at a $40 discount.

The Flare Bracelet for iPhone costs $129.

More Wearables With Safety Features

InvisaWear keychains, bracelets, and more

If you like the idea of Flare but have an Android phone, or simply don’t wear bracelets, then you might want to consider InvisaWear products, which are backed by the home security company ADT. The InvisaWear lineup includes a wide range of products: keychains, bracelets, necklaces, fitness bands, and even scrunchies. (Yes, you can now buy a “smart” scrunchie backed by a home security company.) Like the Flare, these products are mostly designed to blend in with the rest of your wardrobe.

I tried the InvisaWear keychain, bracelet, and necklace, all of which are designed around a pretty circular charm. On the back of the charm is a button that sends an alert and your location to local authorities and/or preselected contacts, depending on the settings you choose. And if you subscribe to the ADT service at $20 a month, you'll get in-app chats and calls with an ADT agent too—which is helpful if you want to stay on the phone with someone until you feel safe. If you don't subscribe, the alert still goes through ADT, but instead of a check-in call, you'll get a text before they send help.

The app is available for iPhone and Android users, and, like Flare, it uses Bluetooth to connect to your phone.

InvisaWear safety wearables cost $129 to $249.

Note: There's a 5 percent discount for students. Like on the Flare, the battery isn't rechargeable, so after a year or two you'll need to replace the button at a discounted $99 fee—the app will alert you when it's time to replace it.

Safety Features Already in Your Smartwatch

If you already own a wrist wearable like an Apple Watch or Garmin fitness tracker, you might not want to spend your money on yet another gadget. Or maybe you'd just prefer something that's more multi-use than a wearable SOS button. The good news is that some popular smartwatch models have safety features built in.

  1. Apple Watch SOS: Like an iPhone, you can make an SOS call to local emergency services via your Apple Watch by pressing the side button until the SOS slider appears on the screen. From there you can manually drag the slider, or keep holding the button until it counts down for five seconds and then automatically activates the call. Your designated emergency contacts are also notified via text message with your location.
  2. Garmin Watch Assistance: Most Garmin models—including our favorites, the Venu Sq, Forerunner 745, and Fenix 6S Pro, plus others—have an assistance feature that will send your location to your determined contacts if activated, similar to the Flare and InvisaWear jewelry. There is also “incident detection,” which automatically sends your location to those contacts when a fall or other serious accident, like a bike crash, is detected by the device.

WIRED writer Adrienne So tried testing the incident detection feature with her Garmin Venu 2S, and couldn't get it to activate after a fake fall. So we can't say for sure how well this would work during an actual incident. Still, Adrienne says she feels generally much safer on runs thanks to her Garmin’s location tracking. Like most of these wearables (except for Apple Watch, which you can set up a separate cellular plan for), your phone will have to be with you for this to work. And of course, you'll have to make sure you activate these safety features first.

If You’re Off the Grid …

Garmin inReach Mini

If you’re a frequent camper or hiker, or are otherwise away from cell service often, most of these products aren’t going to help you in an emergency. That’s where a satellite messenger comes in.

We have a guide with a few picks for different situations, but the $329 Garmin inReach Mini is one of our favorites. It’s light and takes up little room in your bag, plus it utilizes the super-fast Iridium satellite network to get your SOS to help.

The Garmin inReach Mini costs $350 at REI and $329 at Amazon.

A Personal Alarm for Your Keychain

Custom Music Safety Keychain

A personal alarm won't notify your faraway friends or let police know that you're in trouble, but a super-loud alarm can still potentially alert other humans around you. More importantly, it might scare off a potential attacker. If you've been grabbed and can still get to the alarm, putting it right to the person's ear could force them to loosen their grip on you. Just try to protect your own ears, and run away as fast as you can.

WIRED writer Louryn Strampe uses this $50 keychain alarm from a small Black-owned business, which comes with lip gloss, a personalized song charm, anda  big furry puff. These things disguise the alarm, and they give you a cute accessory to hold on to. A “low-tech” alarm like this will work even if your phone is dead or you're far from a signal—just check the battery every now and then to make sure it’s still working.

The Music Safety Keychain costs $50 but is currently on sale for $25.

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