Podcast: When I Call 911, Are the Police Entitled to my Location Data?

Unfortunately, it was inevitable. As our nation’s 911 centers rolled out the technology that allowed people to send text messages to public safety dispatchers, pranks and false alarms were bound to happen.

In a recent case out of West Virginia, a 19-year-old woman was arrested after allegedly texting police, claiming she had been kidnapped and locked in the trunk of a car. Police say they followed the GPS coordinates of the texts, and discovered the woman safe in a tent; no kidnapper in sight.

In a criminal complaint, department officials said they wasted time and effort finding the alleged prankster, pulling them away from other important police work.

This case raises important questions around data privacy when calling or texting 911. While it may be easy to say that privacy and location sharing should be an implied opt-in, there are valid arguments about whether this functionality could be compromised by hackers, allowing location data to fall into the wrong hands.

The technical quandary of how to share additional incremental data with police from mobile devices and networks will soon be put to rest with the build-out of next-generation 911 emergency IP networks. Once we have the tools, who will answer the privacy concerns that this capability will raise?

While this debate is likely to continue for many years to come, it does highlight the inherent value of additional incremental data that can be provided to emergency responders. We have to be careful that privacy questions don’t overshadow the value of environmental situational awareness—for example, being able to view live footage of a fire or bank robbery, streaming from someone’s smartphone inside the building.

New technology always requires new regulatory and legislative thinking, especially when questions revolve around personal privacy.

Should public safety be granted an assumed “opt-in” for location and information sharing on a text or call to emergency services?

Or should we rely on apps deployed within public safety environments to query the device, receiving explicit permission each time?

I’d love to hear your comments and views on the topic.

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