The tension between security and freedom further develops in the death of Yeming Shen. I Wiki­media Commons

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.