IDF rolls out anti-kidnap app to keep soldiers safe

Distress button will alert authorities to an emergency, triggering video, voice and text communication with 3 army headquarters

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

From left to right: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gil-ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, three Israeli teenagers who were seized and kiled by Palestinians on June 12, 2014 (photo credit: IDF/AP)
From left to right: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gil-ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, three Israeli teenagers who were seized and kiled by Palestinians on June 12, 2014 (photo credit: IDF/AP)

The 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-ad Shaer — rocked the nation.

Recognizing that he and the other two had been abducted by the people who picked them up at a hitchhiking post, one of the teens called the police and whispered, “We’ve been kidnapped.” The call was transferred immediately to a senior officer, who continued to ask questions but received no reply. The call lasted for 2:09 minutes and was then cut off. The officer called the number eight more times but received three busy signals and reached voicemail five times.

The kidnappers, apparently realizing that a call had been made, shot the three teens dead at that point in the backseat of the car, military sources said.

The emergency did not prompt an alert by Israel’s security forces. The senior officer did not pass on the information to her superiors or listen to the recording for further evidence, concluding that it was a prank call. Only some seven hours later did the security forces realize there had been a kidnapping and begin what became an 18-day search operation.

The IDF’s new “Distress Signal” app is meant to alert authorities about soldiers in distress (IDF spokesperson unit)

“After the kidnapping event, the IDF came to the conclusion that there must be a way to respond to soldiers who are in distress,” said IDF Major Itay Almog, manager of the army’s “Distress Signal” project, which was set up in 2016.

Last week, the army started rolling out a new app that does just that. All soldiers, whether in regular service or career officers, and civilians working for the army will be getting text messages from the army, inviting them to download a new app onto their smartphones that will allow them to alert authorities about emergency situations — terror attacks, kidnappings, natural disasters, or any other dire situation they are witness to.

“Within a minute, operational war rooms will know what is happening,” Almog said. “Our target population is all of our soldiers, and the aim is to improve the tactical response the IDF can give in a case of distress.”

Almog emphasized that the app will only begin tracking the soldiers once they press the distress button, and its location-based function will be disabled by default so as to protect the soldiers’ privacy. Once activated, at the push of a button, the phone will immediately alert three headquarters: the soldier’s unit, a division closest to the soldier’s geographical location, and the IDF’s special operations room dedicated to providing rapid response in cases of emergency, Almog explained.

The IDF’s “Distress Signal” project was set up in 2016 and will start its roll out in June 2018 (IDF spokesperson unit)

At the same time, the phones’ video cameras will be triggered, to show responders what is going on at the site. Users and responders will be able to connect via video, voice and chat.

The app was developed by the Israeli firm NowForce, a maker of personal safety apps based in the US and Jerusalem.

Their technology was adapted to the specifications of the IDF for the new app, Almog said. The main requirements were preserving solders’ privacy and keeping communications and IDF data secret, he said.

“It is very important that as many soldiers as possible download the app so we can keep them safe,” he said.

The app works abroad as well. He added that he expects quite a lot of false alarms as usage of the app kicks off.

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