When Ph.D. candidate Yeming Shen was found dead in his dorm room on Feb. 10, the age-old tension between security and freedom became more fraught than ever.
Shen, a student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, was dying of the flu when he called 911, according to the Washington Post. But because he used a Chinese cell phone with a U.S. number to make the call, police weren’t able to track his location. Despite their frantic search, Shen’s roommate was the first to find his body.
The Washington Post previously reported that police can easily track calls from landline numbers, but today, more than 80% of 911 calls are from wireless phones. Although our phones can easily pinpoint our location when we use Google Maps or hail an Uber, the issues arise in delivering the information through an old 911 system, which was built for landline phones, according to a 2018 CNN article.
The Federal Communications Commission attempted to address this problem with its Enhanced 911 program, which provides 911 dispatchers with more detailed information about wireless calls. Last year, the FCC proposed a set of new rules that would require wireless carriers to provide detailed location data within three vertical “Z‑axis” meters of the caller, according to CPO Magazine.
According to the FCC’s website, only emergency services are allowed to have access to your precise location. The FCC is also required to submit a yearly report to Congress to ensure that 911 location data is not being used by third parties.
Despite these precautions, cell phone companies have been selling customers’ real-time location data for years. AT&T, Sprint, T‑Mobile, and Verizon were caught violating customers’ privacy in 2018, according to the New York Times. In fact, the Times article revealed that one buyer of location data, a law enforcement official, was using it “to track people without a warrant.” Other companies use the data for marketing purposes.
Although the Times article reported that the FCC would fine the carriers more than $200 million, it also quoted Sen. Ron Wyden, D‑Oregon, as saying that the amount was “comically inadequate” to stop the carriers’ illegal dealing.
The FCC’s new Z‑axis rules could help save lives by allowing law enforcement to find callers much more quickly than before. On the other hand, the illegal sale of customers’ real-time location data is a blatant violation of privacy and dangerous.
In a March 2019 article, VICE reported that “bounty hunters and people with histories of domestic violence have managed to trick telecommunications companies into providing real-time location data by simply impersonating US officials over the phone and email.”
The article also specifically mentioned the dangers posed by Enhanced 911 technology.
“In some cases, scammers sought out so-called “E911” data intended for first responders, which is highly precise and can in some cases pinpoint a device’s location inside a building,” VICE reported.
While the Z‑axis rules benefit people who call 911, they also place the privacy and security of every person who owns a cellphone at risk, whether they call 911 or not.
Making people’s lives safer is an easy sell, but consumers should think twice about what they’re giving up in exchange.
Ashley Kaitz is a sophomore studying history.