While she was held captive, Elizabeth Smart says she imagined her rescue like something from an action movie. She envisioned helicopters whirring overhead and law enforcement officers clad in combat gear repelling to the ground.
But that's not what happened.
Instead, in 2003, nine months after Smart had been abducted from her childhood bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, two different couples saw a suspicious-looking man with two females at a bus stop. Both couples called the police, who responded quickly. The man, Smart's captor, Brian David Mitchell, and his accomplice, Wanda Barzee, were taken into custody after officers began to suspect that the third female was the missing Smart.
"[My rescue] was just everyday people paying attention, seeing something strange [and] calling the police," Smart told me over a Zoom video call. "I think that's actually a much, much greater power than any kind of action movie I can conjure in my head."
It's been almost 20 years since Smart was rescued, and she's devoted most of that time to advocacy work -- raising awareness and educating people about missing persons situations, developing resources for survivors, and more.
Having experienced the power and potential of community, Smart was immediately intrigued by Guardian, an app developed by Q5id designed to help locate missing people. The developers told Smart that they wanted to harness the power of everyday people and community.
"Elizabeth Smart's story is one of the most well-known child abductions across the world," Becky Wanta, Q5id's chief information and technology officer, told me in an email interview. "She continues to make great strides towards safety and advocacy regarding missing children, and the victimization and exploitation of sexual assault. She is an absolute inspiration to us and there was no question she would be the perfect person to help us expand and advocate for our mission."
What is the Guardian app?
The Guardian app, which launched across the US in November, aims to help families locate their missing loved ones faster. When someone goes missing, the user can create an alert that goes out immediately to other users nearby.
In instances of a missing person, every second counts. If the person isn't found in the first 24 to 48 hours, the chances of finding them alive drop drastically.
"The quicker that you can get that notification out there about your missing child or loved one, the higher the chances are that you'll be able to find them," Smart says.
She stressed that the Guardian app is not meant to be in competition with the Amber Alert system, which is where she started her advocacy work after being rescued. But the Amber Alert has specific criteria that must be met before an alert can go out. For example, the missing person must be 17 years of age or younger, there must be some evidence that the child is in danger, law enforcement must have enough descriptive information about the missing child to issue an alert, and the child's name and information must already be entered into the National Crime Information Center.
"If you have to wait, that's eating into your very small window of opportunity of finding someone," Smart says. "So [the Guardian app] almost goes hand-in-hand with the Amber Alert because it allows [a notification] to go out immediately."
This means the Guardian app can be used in runaway situations and for loved ones with Alzheimer's or dementia, as well as suspected abduction cases.
How does the app work?
As much as the Guardian app taps into the power of the everyday person, it was also designed for the everyday person. While some have the time and means to volunteer in search efforts, many more are balancing full-time workweeks, families and daily life. Smart says the Guardian app is for them.
"This is an easy, easy way to make a huge difference," Smart says.
When you download the Guardian app, you'll need to allow location services to get alerts.
Enter your phone number and the app will send you a verification code. From there you'll be asked to use your device's camera to scan your face, the right and left palms of your hands, and your ID or passport. You'll also need to record a brief video and voice sample. From there, you can log into the app without a password by scanning your face or palm.
Even if you don't subscribe to the premium tier of the app, you'll still be asked to verify your identity. If you eventually want to leave the app, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org and request your data be removed. (View Q5id's full privacy statement here.)
The verification process aims to safeguard against predators joining the app. Anyone wishing to join the Guardian community is crosschecked against the National Sex Offender Registry when they sign up and regularly afterwards. According to Q5id's website, people who are on the National Sex Offender Registry aren't allowed to join the Guardian community.
"Your information is safe," Wanta said. "It's a community of verified individuals you can trust. We only store what is needed to validate you are who you say you are and the information to locate your missing loved one. We will never sell or share your information."
According to Wanta, biometric authentication and identity proofing help secure the systems the user accesses, but biometric information isn't stored. In addition, any data in Q5id's database is end-to-end encrypted to safeguard against theft, misuse or reverse engineering.
Sending out an alert
You must be a Guardian Plus user to alert the Guardian community that your loved one is missing. Guardian Plus is free for the first month and then costs $4 a month, and according to the website, a portion of the proceeds go to the app's partners like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Dementia Society of America and the Boys and Girls Club of America.
Q5id recommends setting up profiles for loved ones ahead of time. If you're a Guardian Plus subscriber, here's how to issue an alert:
1. Set up a profile for the missing person in the app
2. Tap Create Alert, which you can find under the Loved Ones tab or the Alerts tab
3. Choose your loved one's profile
4. Add additional details like what the person was wearing, any identifying marks, etc.
5. Enter the location the person went missing
6. Tap Send Alert
The app will also notify you if a volunteer responds to your alert.
Receiving an alert
Both Guardian Plus and Guardian Volunteers -- free tier users -- can see alerts issued by other members. Once you opt into push notifications in the app, you'll get geo-located alerts in your immediate area.
While an action-movie style rescue makes for a good movie, Smart says the power of the everyday citizen shouldn't be underestimated.
"If we're keeping our eyes open and we're paying attention, how many more [missing people] will we bring home than if we just wait for the superhero to swoop in?"