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

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In the coming weeks, AT & T will be deploying mobile phone location tracking designed to quickly route emergency calls to 911. According to the company, this new feature will be introduced nationwide by the end of June, making it easier for ambulances to reach people receiving emergency medical care. At first glance, it seems easy. But also remember that the phone company promises to save lives, so we’re using more data about you in the process.

The AT & T upgrade is part of a broader effort to modernize the country’s approach to emergency response. T-Mobile has also begun using location-based routing, experts told Recode that the technology could eventually become universal. At the same time, the federal government is in the midst of a national push to force 911 call centers to adopt a technology called the next generation 911. This allows people not only to call 911, but also to send text containing images and video messages. For emergency lines.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that allows you to pass information directly from someone’s device, such as information stored in health apps. We expect more data to save important time in an emergency, but privacy experts have already warned that the same technology could be or could be abused.


“I’m worried about what will happen the next time a tragedy happens, the next time people are scared, and the next time they have the opportunity to use this data in an unintended way,” said the surveillance technology. Albert Fox Khan, Managing Director, said. The monitoring project (STOP) told Recode.

One of the main ways the telephone network plans to use this data is to connect the caller to the appropriate 911 operator more quickly. The 911 system is designed to work with landlines, so calls to 911 made over mobile phones (cell phones make most of the 911 calls) are routed to the wrong 911 center. May occur. Where old technology is used, mobile phones typically connect to the 911 operator associated with the cell tower antenna that handles the call, but not to the 911 operator in the jurisdiction in which the caller is currently located. If these calls are sent incorrectly, it may take a few minutes to connect to the appropriate dispatcher.

To address this issue, carriers are looking at smartphone sensors such as GPS, wifi antennas, accelerometers, and pressure sensors. Depending on your phone, either Apple or Google can use these sensors to estimate your location. (Google’s system is called Emergency Location Service (ELS) and Apple’s system is called Hybridized Emergency Location (HELO).) With AT & T and T-Mobile’s new system, when someone calls 911, Telephone networks use this location estimation. Guess where someone is best, then connect the call to the appropriate 911 operator. According to AT & T, the entire process takes about 5 seconds and is supposed to find someone’s phone within 50 meters of the actual location.

This is not the only data that the 911 Center can freely use. Apple has already allowed people to load medical information, such as their health status and the medications they are taking, onto their devices. Also, depending on the technology used in your jurisdiction, that information may be automatically sent to emergency responders. Some Apple Watch models have a built-in drop detector that allows you to dial the 911 independently.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should begin sending vertical position data in addition to horizontal position data so that the first responder can easily identify which floor of a skyscraper they are on in an emergency. I instructed the carrier. Also, as the federal government announces the Next Generation 911, it lays the foundation for 911 operators to collect data from other connected devices such as cars, building sensors, and wearables equipped with specific collision notification systems. I am. This is all in addition to many other changes that the country’s thousands of 911 call centers are slowly increasing: software upgrades, sharing and collecting more analytics, and getting better training. The idea behind all these updates is that with more information, the dispatcher can make better decisions about deployment status.

“Many of the fundamental efforts to transform 911 support the current country’s 911 system, prioritizing the health and safety of call recipients and coordinators, and ensuring that the right people are dispatched at the right time. It aims to be, ”explains Tiffany Russell, Pew Charity Trust’s Mental Health and Justice Partnership Project Director. “This police priority model is not always the best response to these really complex and mental health related issues.”

More information can be useful in an emergency, but there are also reasons to worry about 911 collecting additional data. Allowing 911 operators to receive image-based and video-based messages could create new opportunities for racial prejudice, Russell points out. Text messages may not be the most efficient way for operators to communicate in an emergency. The 911 system plays a fundamental role in some of the worst problems of American police, such as excessive police, racist police violence, domestic violence and a seriously flawed approach to behavioral health. I have contributed.

Another concern is data privacy. AT & T told Recode that location data will only be used when a 911 call is in progress, but according to Brandon Abry, even if the caller hangs up, the 911 operator will be the carrier. There are situations where you can request that information directly. Technology Director of the National Emergency Number Association. There is no way to disable the location information sent by an individual user during a 911 call.

These concerns about the 911 system are not new. When FCC deployed Enhanced 911, an early program to improve the type of information 911 operators receive about wireless callers, civil free organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) created data produced by federal agencies. Warned about the risks of trying to access. New technology, or it can fall into the wrong hands. According to a recent FBI guide on cellular data, law enforcement agencies may attempt to collect data created by carriers’ enhanced 911 capabilities. It’s also clear enough that mobile phone location data is generally not well protected. Agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security purchase location data created by the app in the open market, and law enforcement agencies collect data about who they are and seek information if they have the appropriate legal documentation. You can contact us. ..

“They are not responsible for our data. There is no good guarantee in the law limiting how they use the data,” said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at EFF, Recode. Told to. “Sometimes, even at one point, they continue to misuse it.”

These risks become even more serious and annoying as 911 centers across the country begin to receive much more data from people’s devices. This can be time consuming as 911 call centers typically operate at the local level and use significantly different technologies. Still, it’s important to remember that even if a new service is designed or sold as a new way to save lives, there is no guarantee that it will be the only way to deploy it.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here Don’t miss the next one!


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