NEWS: The “Aspire News” smartphone app reportedly enables victims of domestic violence to covertly summon help or alert trusted contacts.

Tales of craftily hidden messages leading to rescue (or, at the very least, disclosure of someone’s plight) have long been a feature in urban folklore. As recently as the 2015 Super Bowl, one of the commercials airing during that event was loosely based on an online story about a domestic abuse victim who furtively summoned help by calling 911 under the guise that she was ordering a pizza.

Perhaps such tales provided the inspiration for the Aspire News app [link opens iTunes], which was the subject of many reader queries here at snopes.com in mid-2015:

There is a message going around Facebook that Dr. Phil’s wife made an app for People in abusive relationships called Aspire News. It’s disguised as a regular news application but when you go to the help section [it] brings you to resources. There’s a “go button” that when you press it the local authorities and local shelters are alerted along with recording everything that’s going on.

Workers who regularly respond to domestic abuse emergencies expressed concern to us in e-mails about whether the app worked as advertised (if it even worked at all) and whether potentially dangerous information was being circulated about the app’s abilities to help domestic abuse victims:

Please check into Mrs McGraw’s (Dr Phil’s wife) phone app called Aspire News.  Apparently it is for domestic violence victims to press a button and authorities will be alerted as to your location and what is going on.  I’m a 911 Dispatcher in Virginia and can speak for my agency and surrounding agencies that this is false and not how it is being sent around.

On the iTunes store, the Aspire News app is briefly described as follows:

Aspire News is a free application which contains summaries of top stories in world, sports, and entertainment news, from the When Georgia Smiled: Robin McGraw Foundation (and powered by Yahoo!).

The Aspire News app was introduced as early as November 2013, well before the 911 pizza story began making the online rounds in late 2014. A 21 November 2013 Salon article described the app as “incredibly smart”:

While the front page functions like a regular news app, when you go to the “Help” section of the page it provides a list of local domestic violence resources and a “Go Button,” that, once pressed, alerts the user’s chosen contacts, local authorities and service providers about the violent or potentially violent situation.

As many commenters have noted, the efficacy of such an app relies a good deal upon its stealthiness: its benefit of enabling a user to covertly summon help during a domestic violence incident can be compromised by widespread knowledge that the app exists and/or readily-available visual documentation of its functions.

Moreover, as the e-mail from the 911 dispatcher reproduced above correctly stated, some dangerous conflation has occurred of the actual functions of the app and the purpose ascribed to it — a crucial aspect to be considered if it is to be used during potentially dangerous and volatile abuse situations. We downloaded and briefly explored the app’s functionality, much of which is difficult to test without actually sending an “alert.”

The Aspire News app’s main functions are not to make contact with 911 dispatchers during an incident of domestic violence. Although the app allows users to covertly investigate local shelter options and read about domestic abuse (without generating a search history immediately visible to an abuser), it is not primarily set up to efficiently and surreptitiously contact 911 dispatchers or summon other emergency services. And given the disparate manner in which dispatchers in various jurisdictions process and receive calls, the app also may not work in the same fashion from place to place and thus may not be a reliable tool to use during an incident of violence in the home.

While the Aspire News app enables users to locate resources available to them and send secret texts, doing so may not be an abuse victim’s best bet should he or she have access to a phone and a few fleeting moments of privacy. Rather than loading an app and clicking through multiple screens to locate a stealth texting function, one might find it faster and safer to text a few quick words to a trusted contact through the phone’s standard SMS interface. Similarly, the app’s ability to “record and transmit” audio or video of abuse presents a potentially risky distraction: if an incident of abuse is severe enough to warrant the capturing of an actionable recording, the victim might be better served by fleeing to safety first and testifying later, rather than sticking around to create a recording which may serve little beneficial purpose later on.

We were unable to locate any documented instances of successful use of the Aspire News app since its debut in late 2013. Although the program does indeed masquerade as a news app while secretly providing information about domestic violence resources, most of its functions might be more efficiently or safely achieved via standard text messaging and incognito web browsing due to the multiple “checks” it employs in hiding its domestic violence resources.