a simple essay


Stealing from Emergency Information

In the United States, the Enhanced 911 service has been around since the early 1980’s. Enhanced 911 or E911 was born out of the necessity of emergency operators to be able to know from where a 911 call has been dialed, because it is often difficult to receive this information from the caller who could be panicking and barely capable of staying on the line. The original E911 service, meant for wireline phone numbers, uses a mapping through a database to find the location of the caller. This service; however, is not available to cell phones, for you could map the phone to a specific location, but merely the owners billing address. The phone, and the caller, will not necessarily be there. Along with the rise in cell phone usage, the FCC extended the need of the E911 to cell phones as well as wired lines. Wireless carriers are to comply with the second phase of the wireless E911 service by the end of 2005, which would allow emergency operators to know the location of a wireless caller to within 100 meters. While currently there are only good intentions involved, many people believe that the E911 infrastructure could be used by police agencies to monitor the public and turn the cell phone into a tracking device.

The enhanced 911 service is not a new thing in North America. Some counties in the USA have had some form of E911 since the early 1980s. This first E911 service was intended to help 911 operators know the location of the caller. Since most calls during this time came from wired lines, it was easy to implement the service. Using a line identification number, the incoming call can be mapped to the address the local telephone company has recorded for that specific number. This is a problem for cell phones and, currently, internet phones as the telephone can be moved and the call does not have to come from the address the telephone service has for the number.

The deadline for phase II of the E911 service for cell phones is almost here. I do not think there is anything wrong with extending the service to cell phone use as well. Considering that cell phones are intended for mobile use, the caller might not be aware of his or her exact location. Having the location information would help 911 operators to better deal with cell phone calls, and they would be capable of sending help faster. If a person is in a car accident late at night on a seldom used highway, the 911 operator would know exactly where on the road better than the shaken up driver. One should also remember that the FCC stated from the original E911 service that this information is only accessible by 911 agencies. Information is also only gathered when the caller dials 911, and the information 911 services receive is for coordinate information. They would need programs to decode the coordinates to an address and directions that they could use.

However, when the information is gathered and how it is stored is where the problem lies. Even if it is only gathered per each 911 call, police agencies could easily get a court order for such E911 information. When looking for a court order on cell phone surveillance, current law only requires that information requested is relevant to an investigation. It completely disregards a person’s privacy, and in many cases, there does not exist proper probable cause to warrant such surveillance. This could mean that police agencies would feel free to request such information more frequently, and any time they please.

It could be more serious however. There are already many government agencies that have set up plans to be able to track people and information more easily. The question then becomes if those agencies will want to have more control of the E911 infrastructure to be able to track cell phone movements. While still possible, this sort of scenario would require an extensive backend to be able to work. Although I do not agree on what eventually would become government surveillance, the storage needs to keep tracking information for an entire population are enormous. How often would positioning information be taken? How long would that information be stored? How easily should police agencies be able to access that information? Where and who would store that information?

What good would it do to store all this information? If we say that only a small percentage of the population would actually be committing crimes or should be kept tracked of, there would then be heaps of information that would be criminally useless to police over 90% of the time. And, if agencies could access it with a simple court order that only asks for vague information, it could be easy to abuse the system and have police agents that could easily harass or abuse the population. It could also be possible that dedicated hackers could make applications or ask for money from people other then police agencies that would want this sort of information – it could become very easy for stalkers or any angry person find someone and to assault them.

Even when this information would be useful it is still a bad idea. This information would be just another part of the investigative process, which does a pretty good job of correctly determining those responsible. Even when one imagines a case where this information alone would solve a case, would it really be worth it? There are plenty of other ways one can establish his or her alibi.

Keeping this sort of personal information just for the sake of storing it, just for the small possibility that it could be useful in the investigation of a crime is ludicrous. I accept that as is, it could and should be possible for police agencies to be able to get as much information from a 911 call, including location. But storing all that information would make it easy to abuse it. Since it would be an enormous amount, it could also be harder to secure it properly.

History and Philosophy


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