After pissing off law enforcement with its announcement that iOS 12 will include a tool intended to circumvent cracking of iPhone encryption, Apple has a new feature that police will probably like: Automatic transmission of location data when a user calls 911.
The transition from landlines to smartphones has meant that many more people have a phone handy in an emergency situation no matter where they are at the time, but the ability to automatically trace a caller’s location has come with trade-offs in accuracy. While we’ve seen a lot of progress to address that problem recently, Apple is taking a big step with its new mobile OS to send dispatchers the information they need to save lives.
RapidSOS is a company that’s been working with tech companies and 911 call centers to better integrate location tracking services in emergency situations. On Monday, Apple announced it will use “RapidSOS’s Internet Protocol-based data pipeline to quickly and securely share HELO location data with 911 centers, improving response time when lives and property are at risk.”
HELO (Hybridized Emergency Location) uses cell towers, GPS, and wifi hardware to pinpoint a user’s location. Without a caller providing verbal location details, 911 dispatchers often have to rely on data from nearby cell towers that only gives a general location. RapidSOS told The Wall Street Journal that carrier data was able to give a general location with a radius of about 522 feet. Apple isn’t giving an exact estimate of its location accuracy with HELO, but the company notes that new FCC guidelines will require carriers to locate callers to within 50 meters at least 80 percent of the time by 2021. Apple says it can “exceed” those targets today.
Call centers will have to integrate their centers with the system as well. It’s unclear how many have been updated at this point, but with Apple, Uber, and Google all working to provide more accurate data, there’s more incentive than ever to get everyone on the same page.
And this is only a first step. RapidSOS told MIT News in 2015 that the next goal is to integrate video streaming services like Facetime with 911's dispatch system, giving callers the chance to immediately be in visual contact with emergency workers.
Apple also made sure to note that this shouldn’t have any impact on its reputation for protecting user’s privacy. “User data cannot be used for any non-emergency purpose and only the responding 911 center will have access to the user’s location during an emergency call,” it wrote in the announcement.