Over the next few weeks, AT&T will be rolling out cell phone location tracking designed to route emergency calls to 911 faster. The company says the new feature will be available nationwide by the end of the month. month of June and should make it easier, for example, for an ambulance to reach a person in a medical emergency. At first glance, this seems like a no-brainer. But it’s also a reminder that while the phone companies promise to save lives, they’re also using a lot more data about you in the process.
AT&T’s upgrade is part of a larger effort to modernize the country’s approach to emergency response. T-Mobile has also started using location-based routing, and experts told Recode the technology could eventually be universal. At the same time, the federal government is in the midst of a national campaign to get 911 call centers to adopt a technology called Next Generation 911, which will allow people to not only call 911, but also send texts including pictures and video messages – to the emergency line.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that can transmit information directly from someone’s device, such as information stored on a health app. The hope is that more data will save crucial time in an emergency, but privacy experts are already warning that the same technology could be misused or exploited.
“I just worry about what will happen the next time there is a tragedy, the next time people are scared, and the next time there is an opportunity to use this data in a way that was never intended,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of Surveillance Technology. Oversight Project (STOP), said Recode.
One of the main ways telephone networks plan to use this data is to connect callers to the correct 911 operator faster. Since the 911 system was designed to work with landlines, 911 calls made through cell phones (cell phones make the majority of 911 calls) are sometimes routed to the wrong 911 center. In places that use older technology, cell phones usually connect to the 911 operator associated with the antenna of the cell tower handling the call, not the 911 operator in the jurisdiction where the caller is currently located. When these calls are misdirected, it can sometimes take several minutes to be connected to the correct dispatcher.
To solve this problem, operators are turning to smartphone sensors, such as GPS, wifi antennas, accelerometers and pressure sensors. Depending on the phone you have, Apple or Google can then use these sensors to estimate your current location. (Google’s system is called Emergency Location Service, or ELS, and Apple’s system is called Hybridized Emergency Location, or HELO.) With new systems from AT&T and T-Mobile, when someone calls 911, the telephone network will use this location estimate. to best guess where someone is, then connect the call to the correct 911 operator. AT&T says the whole process should take about five seconds and is supposed to locate someone’s call within 50 yards from its actual location.
This is not the only data that 911 centers have at their disposal. Apple already lets people upload their medical information — like their health conditions and the medications they take — onto their devices, and depending on the technology used by the jurisdiction you’re in, that information could be automatically sent to responders. emergency. when dialing 911. Some Apple Watch models also have a built-in fall detector that can dial 911 on its own.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered carriers to begin transmitting vertical location data in addition to horizontal location data, making it easier for first responders to identify which floor someone might be on. be in a multi-storey building in case of an emergency. And as the federal government rolls out next-generation 911, it’s also laying the groundwork for 911 operators to collect data from other connected devices, like cars with certain crash notification systems, construction and portable devices. This is all on top of a host of other changes that a growing number of thousands of 911 call centers across the country have slowly implemented: software upgrades, sharing and collecting more analytics, and simply better training. The idea behind all of these updates is that with more information, dispatchers can make better decisions regarding an ongoing situation.
“A lot of the underlying effort around 911 transformation is really trying to help the country’s 911 system today, to prioritize the health and safety of call takers and dispatchers, and to really trying to make sure the right person is sent at the right time,” says Tiffany Russell, director of the Mental Health and Justice Partnerships Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “This police-centric model isn’t necessarily the best answer for dealing with these really complex or mental health issues.”
In an emergency, more information could be helpful, but there are also reasons to be concerned about additional data being collected by 911. Allowing 911 operators to receive image-based messages and videos could create new opportunities for racial bias, Russell points out, and texting may not be the most effective way for an operator to communicate in an emergency. The 911 system has played a fundamental role in and contributed to some of America’s worst police problems, including over-policing, racist police violence, and deeply flawed approaches to domestic violence and behavioral health.
Another growing concern is data privacy. While AT&T told Recode that location data is only used when a 911 call is in progress, there are circumstances where 911 operators may request this information directly from an operator, even if the person who made the call hung up, according to Brandon Abley, the director of technology at the National Emergency Number Association. There is no way for an individual user to opt out of location information sent when making calls to 911.
These concerns about the 911 system are not new. When the FCC rolled out Enhanced 911 — an early program aimed at improving the kind of information 911 operators receive about wireless callers — civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned of the risk of federal agencies trying to access data created by the new technology or it could end up in the wrong hands. A recent FBI guide to cellular data shows that law enforcement sometimes tries to collect data created by operators’ enhanced 911 capabilities. It is also very clear that cell phone location data is generally not well protected. Agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have purchased location data created by apps on the open market, and as long as they have the correct legal documents, law enforcement can contact any company that collects location data. data about someone and request information. .
“They are not responsible for our data, there are no appropriate safeguards in law to limit how they use it,” Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at Recode, told Recode. DEL. “Sometimes even when there is, they still abuse it.”
These risks are likely to become much more serious – and much more obscure – as 911 centers across the country begin to receive a lot more data from people’s devices. This could take some time, since 911 call centers are generally locally run and vary widely in terms of the technology they use. Yet, it is essential to remember that even if a new service is designed or marketed as a new way to save lives, there is no guarantee that this will be the only way it will be rolled out.
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