How AT&T, Google, and Apple are shaping the future of 911


Over the next few weeks, AT&T is implementing cell phone location tracking designed to make emergency calls to 911 faster. The company says the new function will be nationwide in late June and should make it easier for an ambulance, for example, to reach someone suffering from a medical emergency. At first glance, it seems obvious. But it’s also a reminder that as phone companies promise to save lives, they’re also using a lot more data about you in the process.

The AT&T upgrade is part of a broader effort to modernize the country’s emergency response approach. T-Mobile has also begun using location-based routing, and experts told Recode that the technology could be universal. At the same time, the federal government is in the midst of a nationwide push 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 text messages. with pictures and video messages. on the emergency line.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that can transmit information directly from someone’s device, such as information stored in a health application. The hope is that more data will save crucial time during emergencies, but privacy experts already warn that the same technology could be misused or exploited.

“I’m just worried about what’s going to happen the next time there’s a tragedy, the next time people are scared, and the next time there’s an opportunity to use that data in a way they never thought possible.” , Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of Surveillance Technology. Project Supervision (STOP), he told Recode.

One of the main ways that phone networks plan to use this data is to connect callers to the right 911 operator more quickly. Because the 911 system was designed to work with landlines, 911 calls made using cell phones (cell phones make the most of 911 calls) are sometimes sent to the wrong 911 center. In sites that use old technology, cell phones will generally connect to the 911 operator associated with the mobile tower antenna that processes the call, not to the 911 operator in the jurisdiction where the caller is currently located. When these calls are mishandled, it can sometimes take a few minutes to connect to the appropriate dispatcher.

To address this issue, operators are turning to smartphone sensors such as GPS, Wi-Fi antennas, accelerometers and pressure sensors. Depending on your phone, Apple or Google may use these sensors to estimate your current location. (Google’s system is called Emergency Location Service, or ELS, and Apple’s system is called Hybrid Emergency Location or HELO.) With the new AT&T and T-Mobile systems, when if someone calls 911, the phone network will use this location estimate. to better guess where someone is and then connect the call to the appropriate 911 operator. AT&T says the whole process should take about five seconds and is supposed to locate someone’s call within 50 meters of their actual location.

These are not the only data available to 911 centers. Apple now allows people to upload their medical information, such as their health conditions and medications, to their devices, and depending on the technology used by the jurisdiction in which you are located, this information may be automatically sent to services. emergency. when dialing 911. Some Apple Watch models also have a built-in drop detector that can dial 911 on its own.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered carriers to begin transmitting vertical location data as well as horizontal location data, making it easy for first responders to identify which floor someone might be in a building. several floors during an emergency. And as the federal government implements Next Generation 911, it is also laying the groundwork for 911 operators to collect data from other connected devices, such as cars with certain crash notification systems, building sensors, and wearables. All this adds to a number of other changes that a growing number of thousands of 911 call centers in the country have been making slowly: updating software, sharing and collecting more analytics, and just getting better training. The idea behind all these updates is that with more information, dispatchers can make better decisions about a developing situation.

“Many of the underlying efforts around 911 transformation are really trying to help the nation’s 911 system, prioritize the health and safety of call receivers and dispatchers, and really just trying to make sure the right person is ‘send at the right time “. explains Tiffany Russell, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on mental health and justice partnerships. “This first police model is not necessarily the best answer to deal with these really complex mental health issues or problems.”

In the event of an emergency, more information might be helpful, but there are also reasons to worry about 911 collecting additional data. Allowing 911 operators to receive picture and video-based messages could create new opportunities for racial prejudice, Russell points out, and texting may not be the most efficient way for an operator to communicate during an emergency. The 911 system has played a key role in contributing to some of the worst problems in the U.S. police, such as over-policing, racist police violence, and deeply flawed approaches to domestic violence and behavioral health.

Another growing concern is data privacy. Although AT&T told Recode that location data is only used when there is a 911 call, there are circumstances in which 911 operators may request this information directly from an operator, even if the person who made the call has hung up, according to Brandon Abley, the National Emergency Number Association’s director of technology. There is no way for an individual user to turn off location information sent during 911 calls.

These concerns with the 911 system are not new. When the FCC launched Enhanced 911, an early program to improve the kind of information 911 operators receive about wireless callers, civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned about the risk that federal agencies would try to access the data created by the new technology, or it could end up in the wrong hands. A recent FBI guide to mobile 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 such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have purchased location data created by open market applications, and as long as they have the proper legal documentation, law enforcement can contact any company that collects data about someone and ask for information. .

“They are not responsible for our data, there are no adequate safeguards under the law to limit how they use them,” Andrés Arrieta, EFF’s director of consumer privacy engineering, told Recode. “Sometimes, even when there are, they continue to misuse them.”

These risks become much more serious, and much more murky, as 911 centers across the country begin to receive much more data from people’s devices. This may take a while, as 911 call centers are generally run locally and vary considerably in terms of the technology they use. However, it is important to remember that even if a new service is designed or marketed as a new way of saving lives, there is no guarantee that it will be the only way it will be deployed.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one!



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