Clothing as SOS

The challenges of building wearables for personal safety without burdening a victim.

Iltimas Doha got the idea from a Halloween costume he saw on Ada Fruit. The TRON hoodie is a normal sweatshirt with a blue green glowing trim. What if it blinked? What if it blinked during a stop-and-frisk? He’s a student resident at Eyebeam in NYC (where I’m also currently a resident) currently working on a prototype that will light up when law enforcement aggressively targets someone on the street.

While New York’s stop-question-and-frisk program is nominally over, people of color are still routinely targeted by cops in terry stops around the city. Doha’s original research for the hoodie project focused on documentation like GPS and audio/video recording. But clear video footage neither prevented the death of Eric Gardner — unjustly killed in the policing of “quality-of-life offenses” — nor did it lead to an indictment of the officer involved. Documentation is not enough. Doha is now thinking of ways to draw attention and get the community to notice when someone is being targeted. The “goal is to make these private encounters very public,” he told me.

Visibility isn’t always safety. While mobile apps might effectively communicate distress signals in projects like an alert built for undocumented workers to contact family when arrested, wearables developed for personal safety are often awkward and criticized for putting a layer of burden on the user. There’s Guardian Angel jewelry, designed for women walking alone at night, that messages an emergency contact if you press it for longer than three seconds. But while it isn’t subtly victim-blaming like the much scoffed “anti-date rape” nail polish, it seems impractical for daily use.

The “No Contact Jacket.” Developed to prevent violence against women. Now sold to police as riot gear.

There was an interesting project several years ago from Adam Whiton and Yoda Patta, designers at MIT, and Yolita Nugent, an apparel designer. They created a coat with sensors that record domestic violence attacks. Whiton and Nugent also created the “No-Contact Jacket” for women that with an activated switch releases voltage to send an attacker “disorientating pain.”

Ten years ago, their website stated “No-Contact Jacket is a wearable defensive jacket created to aid women in their struggle for protection from violence.” Up until 2009, the website showed images of women dressed in the “wearable defensive jacket” and statistics like “According to the Senate Judiciary Committee, three out of four women in the United States will be victims of one violent crime during their lifetime.”

Now the website says: “Our mission is to help protect security personnel, law enforcement officers, military and civilians using the latest in wearable technologies.”

No Contact Jacket website before.
No Contact Jacket website after.

The project is now incorporated in riot gear for police and sold to military and defense contractors. It is unfortunate that Whiton and Nugent hadn’t considered that police are as much as four times more likely to commit acts of domestic violence than the general population before this pivot.

A product that was developed for victims is now marketed to likely abusers.

Perhaps Doha’s hoodie will one day protect someone from an officer wearing a “No-Contact Jacket.” The hoodie will provide a line of communication for someone voiceless and vulnerable. His project reminds me of something Jessamyn West, my colleague at The Message, initiated after the USA PATRIOT ACT went into effect. The act allowed warrantless searches of libraries to monitor people’s reading habits. In addition to providing FBI with authority to search library records, Section 215 prohibits staff from disclosing that the FBI visited.

West circumvented the gag order with notices she created stating things like “The FBI has not been here. Watch very closely for the removal of this sign,” which was made “on the assumption that it’s only illegal to say they’ve been there if it’s true.” The signs were distributed to every public library in Vermont, her home state.

Doha is planning a series of workshops for young people around NYC on how to use the hoodie and stay safe. You can donate to Doha’s project on Crowdwise.