Public Safety Doesn’t Have to Come at the Expense of Privacy

Privacy groups urge FCC Chairman and Commissioners to Resolve E911 Privacy Concerns

When you dial 911, you expect emergency responders to—well—respond, often by coming to you. But as more and more people use mobile devices to contact 911 during emergencies, a serious problem has emerged: emergency responders don’t always know where mobile callers are located. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to address the problem by updating its rules that require phone carriers to provide location information to emergency responders about customers calling 911. The FCC estimates that the proposed updates could save over 10,000 lives per year. However, the proposed updates also raise significant privacy concerns, because building in the ability to deliver more precise location information about phone customers means generating more sensitive customer information that could be vulnerable to abuses. At OTI, we support rules that could save thousands of lives, but we also think that public safety should not come at the expense of privacy—nor does it have to. That’s why OTI sent a letter to the FCC yesterday urging the Chairman and Commissioners to address and resolve privacy concerns stemming from the proposed updated E911 rules. OTI was joined on the letter by 17 other privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge.

The letter follows comments that OTI and 16 other privacy advocates filed last month in the E911 docket. Those comments warned the FCC about numerous privacy concerns arising out of the proposed new rules, and called on the FCC to pass new regulations protecting and restricting the use of E911 location information and related records. Since those comments were filed, the Chairman has announced that E911 will be on the agenda for the Commission’s January 29 open meeting.

This week’s letter asks the Chairman and Commissioners to commit to updating existing privacy protections to maintain clarity in the context of new location technologies, and to require carriers to design their E911 system(s) with the following privacy protections built in:

  • A mechanism that makes it possible for owners of wireless consumer home products to opt out of having their devices included in a new National Emergency Address Database that will be used for E911 purposes.
  • A system design in which E911 location functionality can only be triggered through mobile handsets, and not remotely.
  • Assurance that technologies designed to comply with E911 requirements (e.g., barometric sensors or firmware that determines location using WiFi and Bluetooth) will not be made available to third parties without consumers’ express opt-in consent.
  • Assurance that, in accordance with their preferences, consumers will not only be able to turn location services on or off via a global setting on their mobile devices, but will also be able to granularly grant or deny access to location services to each application.
  • Assurance that information gathered from E911 technologies are not used or disseminated to third parties, including government entities.

Read the letter here.

Author:

Laura Moy was a Program Fellow for New America's Open Technology Institute.