Charlie Hebdo Case Study: People-Tracking and Covert Audio-Recording Apps as Part of Crisis Management

When the Kouachi brothers stormed into the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January, shooting 11 people dead, injuring a further 11 and killing a police officer outside as they left, text alerts quickly alerted 90 users of a people-tracking app.

Quietly and unobtrusively they were given precise coordinates for the incident location and advice about what they should and shouldn’t do, and where they could and shouldn’t go, for their own safety. (And, in case they were in the locality, they were given details of their emergency evacuation, had that been considered necessary).

Most users of the app – designed by Vismo for use with smartphones, iPad, BlackBerry 7 and BlackBerry 10 devices, standalone trackers and the Iridium satellite tracking phone, RockSTAR and the Thuraya satellite tracking device  – were employees of businesses,going about their daily work.

Some were buyers in retail, en route to China. Some worked for financial services organisations. In Paris,only smartphone users (BlackBerry, iPhone or Android devices) were using Vismo that day.

Being satellite-based devices, capable of communicating in areas of poor or no mobile phone signal, the Iridium, Thuraya and RockSTAR phones are not deployed in cities.

Their employers alerted them by text as soon as the incident at the Charlie Hebdo offices was known about. Non-employees (ie, personal subscribers to the app service) were alerted by a text sent from Vismo’s central server.

The precise location of all users of the app were known about either by the employer organisations and Vismo, allowing highly customised, detailed advice to be given to each of them.

It is during incidents like this where technology and associated innovation combines with duty of care (and a willingness to care) by employers – and interest in self preservation by individuals – to produce outcomes whose aim is to minimise risk to life and maximise well being.


Jérémie Hartmann under CC BY-SA 4.0

About the technology

A phone with the app is turned into a tracking device complete with a panic button that, when activated by the user of the phone, automatically triggers email and text alerts, in real time, to key contacts. The phone also automatically sends covert audio recordings to those contacts, via Vismo’s highly secure central server, enabling the user to optionally send spoken messages and for the phone to send any noises or conversations etc that are being picked up.

Those recordings help one or more third parties, including crisis management teams, to ascertain the risk level and take appropriate action, which can include emergency evacuation or, in the event of a kidnap, a rescue attempt.

Apart from the panic button and covert recording capabilities, included in the technology are:

– GPS Tracking, giving regular GPS fixes of events and allowing a user organisation’s crisis management team to view current locations, historical trails, battery life and signal strength.

– Incident Response, showing the most current position of employees in the vicinity of any incident and sends advice, by text, on what action they should take.

– Geo-Fencing, enabling user organisations to set up “geo-fences” and receive text messages and email alerts when an employee moves into a high risk area or leaves a safe one.

– Online control, enabling user organisations to manage the risk and safety of all affected employees from one secure, central, online location.

– Check-in/check-out, allowing personnel to register their arrival and departure to/from a location, via the app.

Collaboration with emergency services 

 The central server enables liaison between Vismo and emergency services (public and/or private) to share information and increase the likelihood of successful outcomes. Such contact between the parties can start immediately a user of the app activates the panic button, thereby sending an alert to one or more emergency services.

The server integrates all the information being sent from the app, including the audio recordings, with details about the location of the individual or individuals affected. It immediately puts the location and other information into a third party mapping solution that is used by any or all of the emergency services, permitting the earliest possible response from them.

Where an incident requires evacuation of personnel, the app user organisation will send them text messages about how best to get away from the area, including, where appropriate, details of the nearest standby aircraft or other means of evacuation.

It is not only because of the threat of terrorist incidents and kidnaps that the apps are used (and have been used, effectively). They are also deployed in industries with a history of accidents involving fire/explosion and loss of life or injury in case a natural disaster happens.

If the Charlie Hebdo incident taught us two things, they are that an incident can come out of the blue – and that it’s best to be prepared, the preparation perhaps starting with the activation of a panic button on a phone by an individual caught up in whatever will very soon be revealed.

Watch a demo of Vismo’s people-tracking app below: