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

Over the coming weeks, AT&T is launching a mobile location tracking feature designed to route emergency calls to 911 more quickly. The company says the new feature will be nationwide by the end of June and should make it easier for an ambulance, for example, to reach someone with a medical emergency. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. But it’s also a reminder that because phone companies promise to save lives, they also use a lot of 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 is also beginning to use location-based routing, and experts tell Recode that the technology could eventually be global. Meanwhile, the federal government is in the midst of a nationwide campaign to get 911 call centers to adopt a technology called Next Generation 911, which would allow people to not only call 911 but also send texts — including photos and video messages — to the emergency line.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that can transfer information directly from a person’s device, such as information stored on a health app. The hope is that more data will save critical time during emergencies, but privacy experts are already warning that the same technology can be misused or exploited.

Albert Fox Kahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), said Recode.

One of the main ways that telephone networks plan to use this data is to connect callers to the correct 911 operator more quickly. Because the 911 system is designed to work with landlines, calls to 911 made via cell phones (cell phones place the majority of 911 calls) are sometimes routed to the wrong 911 center. In places that use outdated technology, cell phones will generally connect to the 911 operator associated with the antenna on the cell tower that handles the call, not the 911 operator in the jurisdiction in which the person currently calling is located. When these calls are misdirected, it can sometimes take several minutes to contact the correct sender.

To address this issue, carriers are turning to sensors in smartphones, such as GPS, wifi antennas, accelerometers, and pressure sensors. Depending on which phone you have, Apple or Google can 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 AT&T and T-Mobile systems, when someone makes a call to 911, they’ll use Telephone network This location estimation to make a better guess as to 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 meters of their physical location.

This isn’t the only data available to 911 centers. Apple actually allows people to upload their medical information — such as health conditions and medications they use — to their devices, and depending on the technology used by the jurisdiction you’re in, this information can be automatically sent to emergency responders when you call 911. Some Apple Watch models also have a built-in fall detector that can dial 911 on its own.

Meanwhile, the FCC has ordered carriers to begin sending vertical location data in addition to horizontal location data, making it easier for first responders to determine which floor someone might be on in a multi-story building during an emergency. As the federal government launches the next-generation 911, it is also laying the groundwork for 911 operators to collect data from other connected devices, such as cars with certain failure notification systems, building sensors, and wearables. All this on top of a host of other changes that the country’s slowly growing number of thousands of 911 call centers have been making: upgrading software, sharing and gathering more analytics, and getting better training. The idea behind all of these updates is that with more information, senders can make better decisions about the unfolding situation.

“A lot of the core effort around transforming 911 is really trying to help the current state’s 911 system, prioritizing health and safety for call takers and senders, and just trying to make sure the right person is dispatched at the right time,” explains Tiffany Russell, director of the Mental Health and Justice Partnerships Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. . “This police first model is not necessarily the best response to dealing with these really complex problems or mental health issues.”

In an emergency, more information may be helpful, but there are also reasons to be concerned about 911 collecting additional data. Russell notes that allowing 911 operators to receive image- and video-based messages can create new opportunities for racial bias, and texting may not be the most effective way to communicate with an operator during an emergency situation. The 911 system has played a fundamental role and contributed to some of America’s worst police problems, including over-policing, racist police violence, and deeply flawed domestic violence and behavioral health methods.

Another growing concern is data privacy. While I told AT&T 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 a carrier, even if the person who made the call hangs up, according to Brandon Abley, director of technology for the Association National emergency number. There is no way for an individual user to disable location information sent during 911 calls.

These 911-related concerns are not new. When the FCC rolled out Enhanced 911 — an early program to improve the type of information the 911 operator receives about wireless callers — civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned of the danger that federal agencies would attempt to access data generated by new technology, or it may end up in the wrong hands. Recent FBI evidence of cellular data shows that law enforcement sometimes attempts to collect data generated by carriers’ enhanced 911 capabilities. It is also clear that mobile location data in general is not well protected. Agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have bought the location data generated by the app on the open market, and as long as they have the correct legal paperwork, law enforcement can reach out to any company that collects data on a person and solicit information.

“They are not responsible for our data, and there are no appropriate safeguards in law to limit how it is used,” Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at EFF, told Recode. “Sometimes, even when it’s there, they keep abusing it.”

Those risks are likely to become more serious – and more ambiguous – as 911 centers across the country start receiving more data from people’s devices. This can take some time, since 911 call centers generally operate locally and vary widely 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 to save lives, there is no guarantee that this is the only way to spread it.

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