Government coy on 111 caller location limitations

The service was introduced in May

The New Zealand Government is boasting about the effectiveness of a new caller location system for calls to 111 make from mobile phones, without making any mention of the fact that it works only from Android phones.

The service was introduced in May and on 9 July police minister, Paula Bennett, communications minister, Simon Bridges and internal affairs minister Peter Dunne issued a joint statement saying it had already made a significant impact.

Bridges said: “Since the system was introduced, more than 145,000 genuine 111 calls have been made to emergency services and around 20 percent of these calls involved operators using the system to help them get more accurate information about a caller’s location.”

The joint release went on to detail 10 instances where the location information provided had proved valuable to enable the caller to be located expeditiously.

When the service was announced in May the three ministers’ joint release hinted at its limitations saying: “The level of location accuracy will still vary depending on a number of factors such as the type of mobile phone and the location source available.”

Bridges added: “This solution sees New Zealand leading the way in emergency response systems, alongside the United Kingdom and other European countries. New Zealand is the first country outside of Europe to go live with Google’s Android Emergency Location service nationally.”

The result of obfuscation was that at least one report of the launch seen by Computerworld failed to mention this important limitation.

It was necessary to dig into the FAQs to understand the true situation, and these give little sign that an Apple equivalent will be available any time soon, saying “A more precise mobile caller location solution for non-Android phones will be considered once a technical solution is determined.”

Location data is provided by the cellular network for calls made to emergency services from any mobile phone but this is rarely sufficiently accurate to enable a speedy response to the caller’s precise location.

The Google Android Emergency Location service appears to be a feature built into Android that becomes active as soon as the emergency services decide to support it. Regardless of the phone’s settings it automatically turns on GPS and WiFi and relays the phone’s position to the emergency service when a call is made.

In an outdoor location with GPS satellites visible this will be extremely accurate, and Wi-Fi generally enhances cellular network location data considerably.

Google announced the service in a blog in July 2016, saying:  “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’.”

The blog reassured readers that they were not being tracked by Google without their knowledge. “This feature is solely for the use of emergency service providers, and your precise 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.”    

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