911’s Biggest Flaw, and How to Solve It

While you may not realize it, your telephone number has been a piece of information used to uniquely identify you or your location for quite some time. Just this week, I received a new Personal Health Savings account credit card, and I needed to activate it. The sticker directed me to call a 1 (800) number “from my home phone” to ensure it was me actually activating the card, and gaining access to my healthcare savings.

While I understood the logic behind that, I immediately questioned the validity of my phone number promulgating the fact it was me on the phone. When I called, the IVR asked me for the number on the card, and the last 4 digits of my Social Security number. Taking that all into consideration, this apparent 3-form factor of identification was as follows:

  1. My home phone number: Easily found, rarely concealed and easily spoofed
  2. The last four digits of the credit card number: Something the thief could have in their hands
  3. My Social Security number: Another piece of information easily gleaned and rarely concealed

When you make a call to 911, there’s just one form of identification: Your phone number! That number is used to determine who you are, and more importantly, WHERE you are. In today’s technology-filled arena of electronic communications toys, the VERY LAST thing a number has associated with it is a location. This single fact is keeping Public Safety officials from effectively doing their job.

While it is easy to remove the human issues–like the recent story of a deputy finishing his pizza before responding to a heart attack 911 call–the hard fact is that police and fire departments are operating with an archaic, analog-based core technology for a network.

Even worse, that network is not even capable of handling current data types that are present in today’s communications networks, let alone the new data types yet to be defined.

Avaya Vice President and Chief Technologist Jean Turgeon recently finished a whirlwind tour of the Middle East, where he met with Public Safety and government leaders from across the region.

The Avaya Technology Forum went to Dubai for the first time and attracted more than 750 attendees, breaking records for any other first-time show in a region.

“With mobile devices being the main mode of communications, you may want to ask if the legacy PSAP systems can locate users in the event of an emergency,” Turgeon said in a recent interview. “The traditional model was not built with mobile devices in mind and hence, it was easier to tie a location to a hard phone in your home or office. Today however, a number [is] associated with a person and not with a location, or even a device. But where is that person located and how can he or she be helped in crisis?”

This is a troubling premise that exists globally, as there has been a dramatic paradigm shift in how we communicate, compared to the now-fragile telecommunications infrastructure we rely on.

Where we’ve delivered technology and abilities to empower advanced communications between citizens, we have blocked ourselves from Public Safety by locking down that technology, and zoomed past its usable life expectancy at light speed. In our trail, we leave a pile of vacuum tubes, no longer useful for the modern era.

Fortunately, at Avaya, we are resilient and innovative. We understand communications, and we understand networking. We also have the foresight and vision to understand how to build the brave new network fabric required to deliver all of these new data points that will exist in the Internet of Everything, replacing the archaic phone number that previously identified us.

While I’m sure ‘Jenny’ will still be reachable at 867-5309, she’ll likely have a SIP URL as well, but that is a little harder to rhyme.

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