In the coming weeks, AT&T is extraction tracking the location of a mobile phone designed to speed emergency calls to 911. The company says the new feature will be available nationwide by the end of June and should make it easier, say, for an ambulance to reach someone with an ambulance. At first glance, this seems to make no sense. But it’s also a reminder that as phone companies promise to save lives, they also use a lot more information about you in the process.
The upgrade of AT&T is part of a broader effort to modernize the country’s approach to emergency response. T-Mobile also began to be used location-based routing, and experts told Recode that the technology could eventually be universal. At the same time, the federal government is in the midst of efforts across the country to force 911 call centers to adopt so-called technology. The next generation 911which will allow people not only to call an ambulance but also to send texts including pictures and video messages – to the emergency line.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that can directly transfer information from someone’s device, e.g. information stored in the health application. We hope that more data will save key time in emergencies, but privacy experts are already warning that the same technology could be misused or exploited.
“I’m just worried about what will happen the next time a tragedy happens, the next time people get scared, and the next time there’s an opportunity to use that data in a way that was never foreseen,” said Albert Fox Cahn, chief technology officer. oversight of the Oversight Project (STOP), Recode said.
One of the main ways telephone networks plan to use this data is to connect callers to the appropriate 911 operator more quickly. Because the 911 system is designed to work with landlines, calls to the 911 are made through mobile phones (mobile phones set most of 911 calls) are sometimes diverted to the wrong emergency center. In places that use older technology, mobile phones will generally connect to the 911 operator connected to the antenna on the mobile phone tower that handles the call, and not to the 911 operator in the jurisdiction in which the caller is currently located. When are these calls misdirectedcan sometimes it takes a few minutes be connected to the right dispatcher.
To solve this problem, operators are turning to sensors in smartphones, such as GPS, wifi antennaaccelerometers and pressure sensors. Depending on the phone you have, Apple or Google may use these sensors to estimate your current location. (Google’s system is called Emergency locating serviceor ELS, and Apple’s system is called Hybrid emergency location, or HELO.) With the new AT&T and T-Mobile systems, when someone makes a 911 call, the telephone network will use this location estimate to best guess where someone is, and then connect the call to the right 911 operator. AT&T says the whole process should take about five seconds and should locate someone’s call within 50 meters of their actual location.
This is not the only data available to the 911 centers. Apple already allows people to upload their medical information – e.g. what their health conditions are and what medications they are taking – to their devices, and depending on the technology used by the jurisdiction in which you are located, this information could be automatically sent to emergency services when they call 911. Some Apple Watch models also have the built-in drop detector who can call 911 himself.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered operators to start broadcasting vertical location data in addition to horizontal location data, making it easier for first responders to identify which floor someone might be in a high-rise building during an emergency. And while the federal government represents the next generation 911, it is also laying the groundwork for 911 operators to collect data from other related devices, such as cars with certain collision warning systems, building sensors, and wearable devices. This is all along with many other changes that the growing number of 911 call centers in the country is slowly bringing: software upgrade, sharing and collecting more analytics and just better training. The idea behind all these updates is that, with more information, dispatchers can make better decisions about the situation that is unfolding.
“Many of the fundamental efforts to transform 911 are really trying to help the current 911 system, prioritize health and safety for callers and dispatchers, and are really just trying to make sure the right person is sent on time.” explains Tiffany Russell, director of the Mental Health and Justice Partnership Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. “This model, which is the first in the police force, is not necessarily the best answer to solve these really complex problems or issues related to mental health.”
In emergencies, more information may be helpful, but there are also concerns that 911 will collect additional data. Enabling 911 operators to receive images and video-based messages could create new opportunities for racial bias, Russell points out, and texting may not be the most effective way for an operator to communicate during an emergency. 911 system played fundamental role and contributed to some of the U.S. police force worst problemsincluding excessive police action, racist police violenceand a deeply flawed approach domestic violence i 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 in which 911 operators can request this information directly from the operator, even if the caller hung up, according to Brandon Abley, director technologies in the National Emergency Number Association. There is no way for an individual user to disable location information sent during a 911 call.
These problems with the 911 system are not new. When the FCC showed up improved 911 – an early program to improve the type of information 911 operators receive about wireless callers – civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have warned of risks that federal agencies could try access the created data new technology, or could end up wrong hands. Recently FBI Guide to Mobile Data shows that law enforcement agencies sometimes try to collect data created by operators improved 911 features. It is also quite clear that mobile phone location data is generally not well protected. Agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security bought apps created location data in the open market, and as long as they have real legal paperworkthe police can reach out to any company that collects information about someone and request information.
“They are not responsible for our data, there are no adequate safeguards in law to limit the way they use it,” Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at EFF, told Recode. “Sometimes, even when they exist, they are constantly abusing it.”
These risks will become much more serious – and much more murky – as 911 centers across the country begin to receive far more data from human devices. This could take some time, as 911 call centers are mostly run locally and differ significantly in the technology they use. However, it is important to remember that even if a new service is designed or advertised as a new way of saving lives, there is no guarantee that it will be the only way it will be implemented.
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