Android will soon automatically send user location data to emergency response services.
According to a blog post for Google Europe, users dialing emergency service numbers will be automatically located by using location services and WiFi, with that data transmitted to emergency responders.
It is stated in the blog post:
“Accurate emergency location can be the difference between life and death. In fact, the US Federal Communications Commission estimates “an improved location accuracy which results in reducing wireless E911 response time by one minute can result in saving over 10,000 lives annually”.”
Possibly anticipating user pushback against a potential violation of privacy, Google insists that this feature is used exclusively for emergency services, and is not shared with others.
The company explains:
“This feature is solely for the use of emergency service providers, and location is never seen or handled by Google. It is sent from your handset to emergency services only when you explicitly place an emergency call, either directly or through your mobile network.”
Possible chilling implications of automatic user geolocation
A possible negative side-effect of automatically pairing emergency calls with explicit geolocation of the caller is the fear of legal repercussions for the caller. Government emergency service response often involves police as well as medical assistance, which can cause complications when reporting an emergency, as others present may have been involved in the same illegal activity that triggered the need for assistance.
This fear of prosecution may lead to a reluctance to call life-saving help in time. Adding forced access to location and other data can implicate a bystander calling for help as being complicit in a crime.
Because the fear of facing legal repercussions for helping out a friend in danger, in some areas 911 immunity laws are passed. These allow immunity from prosecution for bystanders reporting an emergency, even if they themselves were involved with illegal activity such as underage drinking or prohibited drug use.
Independent apps already have a head start on geolocated emergency response
Preceding Android’s planned integration with emergency services, there exist emergency response apps which transmit a user’s location in times of need without alerting authorities.
Cell 411 is an app that allows for users to send for help to different networks of friends of emergency responders, including transmit their location and lay out a path for help to arrive.
Cell 411 received a large angel investment in cryptocurrency this earlier year to fund further development of the app, which has particularly caught on in rural areas of South Africa where farmers seek to defend themselves against an increasing wave of violence.