Google is trying to reinvent the emergency contact form for the smartphone era.
The search giant on Monday unveiled a new app called Trusted Contacts, which aims to keep you safe in dicey situations -- anything from a natural disaster to a walk home on a dark street.
The app, only available for now on phones running Google's Android mobile software, allows you to give certain people you trust your exact location at a moment's notice, through your phone's GPS system. If you're in a place with a bad cell signal, those people will be able to see if your phone is offline. They can also see if your battery is dead. (Nervous parents, rejoice.)
"This thing really can be a powerful sensor to make sure you're okay," said David Tattersall, a Google product manager, holding up a phone during a briefing last week. "We're actually going to help some people, and potentially save some lives."
Silicon Valley companies have been getting more involved with people's personal safety, as they make more use of their massive user bases and vast technological networks to help the public. For example, Facebook has a feature called Safety Check, which it deploys during natural disasters and other emergencies. Safety Check lets people in disaster areas post on the social network that they are safe, so their friends need not worry. Google also has a crisis response webpage with a map for weather emergencies and other disasters.
Here's how the Trusted Contacts app works: You can designate friends and family special "trusted" status in the app. The limit is 50 people, though most people will probably select 5 or 6, such as parents or a spouse. When those people open the app, they can see if you're "active" -- that is, your phone is getting reception and you've been moving about the world. If you've been staying put or your phone is offline, the app will tell your contacts the last time you were active.
If, say, there's been an earthquake or you've been MIA too long without any contact, you can ping those people your exact location to let them know you're safe. Or they can ping you asking you to share your location. You can either share it or deny.
But if you don't reply within five minutes, the app automatically sends that person your location. If your phone is offline when the five minutes expire, the app will direct that person to your last known whereabouts.
Once you share your location, your trusted contact will be able to see where you are on a map and track your movement. Google says that's good for a late night walk home, so a loved one can see that you got from point A to point B. When you're sharing your location, you'll see a massive banner on your lock screen with a map on it, so you won't forget you're being tracked.
Likely worried about privacy issues, Google emphasized that Trusted Contacts is an opt-in program, and you can tweak your settings to grant and revoke a person's "trusted" status at any time. You'll get email alerts any time you make those changes.
The big drawback for the app is that it's only available for now on Android phones. That means if your husband or wife is an iPhone user, he or she can't be your trusted contact. Tattersall said Google is working on an iPhone version, but declined to give a timeline for its release.