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e911: The Good and the Bad

In the wake of 9/11, the need for wireless emergency communications became an emphasis for public safety agencies and the federal government. The global positioning system (GPS) technology that will be found in the digital phones and PDAs of tomorrow could have been a godsend to rescue workers scrambling to remove survivors at the World Trade Center.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been working on a wireless emergency communication strategy for years now, and while there is the temptation to rush forward with enhanced 911 (e911) locator service in the event of another disaster, they are opting for a more measured approach.

It's an approach privacy advocates and e911 consultants agree with, though for the time being, the embryonic nature of the technology is forcing the issue.

Back in June 1996, the FCC adopted a Report and Order for the establishment of e911 rules. It gave wireless operators five years to come up with the technology to forward 911 calls on cell phones to the nearest public safety answering point (PSAP), as well as give the location of the base station the call came from to help track the person down if the call was interrupted.

Over the ensuing years, the federal agency elaborated on its requirements (which operators are obligated to meet, since the government leases the spectrum to the carriers), breaking down its requirements into two phases.

Phase I e911 services have been in place for years, giving public safety agencies the telephone number of the caller and the location of the base station the call originated. Phase II is similar, but the locator ranges are much more stringent, requiring the exact location of the caller.

That's a whole new order of technology to develop and deploy into wireless networks, though the FCC gave carriers until 2005 to get everything in place. It's a tall order; any digital phone or PDA/Internet device on the network must have automatic location identification (ALI) technology in use by the end of the year.

While Phase I has always been a stepping stone to Phase II, safety officials have wanted more information than just the location of the base station, which in an urban area would hardly narrow down the identity of the caller. The GPS-like technology in Phase II will give public safety agencies much more accurate information on the caller's location, to the tune of 50 meters for wireless phones and 100 meters for PDAs and the like.

Dr. Michael Chu, director of e911 services for inCode Telecom Group, a wireless technology-consulting firm, believes e911 service will save lives when the Phase II technology becomes available.

"It's a great tool," he said. "If you're in a new area and don't know where you are, the cell phone will be able to convey your location to the (public safety agency). The person doesn't need to worry about finding out what street they're on or any of that."

In fact, the technology has become a victim of its own success; a sticking point, Chu said, is public safety agencies that want altitude information on wireless devices, which would give policemen and firemen a 3D representation of the caller's location.

It's possible, he said, to provide information that would give agencies the ability to find out what floor a person is calling from and would have been invaluable to rescuers at the WTC.

"In my opinion, if Phase II technology was available and could give pinpoint latitude, longitude and altitude data, it could have helped in locating survivors at Ground Zero," Chu said.

However, while altitude checks are possible with the technology found in enhanced observed time difference (E-OTD) and assisted global positioning system (A-GPS) standards used by the wireless carriers today, commercial satellite spectrum can't penetrate concrete, rebar and metal. Chu said that if enough satellites concentrate on one area, it would be possible.

While the benefits of e911 are obvious, the potential drawbacks to the service are not, privacy advocates say.

According to David Sobel, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) general counsel, most consumers aren't aware their wireless phones today are giving out locator information and that it would be real easy to keep track of a user's location, whether that person knew about it or not, with Phase II-equipped phones and Internet devices.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (called the 911 Act), established 911 as America's universal emergency number. It also called for further deployment of e911 services. Included was language that wireless carriers must get "express authorization" for using the e911 technology for non-emergency situations.

Think "Big Brother," and you have an idea why advocates are worried advertisers, or the government, would get their hands on the locator service. Groups like EPIC and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) have lobbied for more guidelines to define express authorization.

"There are a lot of gray areas (in the legislation)," Sobel said. "For instance, some companies apparently take the position that they can have a standard service contract have language to the affect of 'entering into this agreement constitutes the user's express prior authorization to allow us to do whatever we want.' We believe it should be something closer to a transaction-by-transaction authorization each time there's a proposed use of the location technology."

Legal interpretations need to be hammered out before the technology becomes pervasive, Sobel said. Case in point; Qwest Communication's quiet implementation of an opt-out policy earlier this year, which gave telemarketers access to the carrier's phone list.

Chu's company, which consults with wireless carriers throughout the U.S., concedes the risks to privacy, but said it's something that will need to be worked out between the carrier and the customer.

"There is a danger to privacy, it's going to be up to the carrier and the customer to decide on privacy (issues)," he said. "The only way I can see it working is if the customer authorizes it, otherwise it really is an invasive platform. In my opinion, I think it needs to be clear that the customer always has the choice of giving away that information."