Jan 29, 2015 · 2 minutes

The FCC has unanimously approved a measure which will require wireless carriers to monitor a person's location inside a building to enable more accurate emergency calls.

The new rule will require carriers to provide the location of an emergency caller within a few stories -- 50 meters horizontally and three meters vertically -- to first responders. This is much more accurate than just providing a street address via the current system.

Carriers will have to accurately provide this information for 67 percent of emergency calls within the next two years; that figure must rise to 80 percent five years from now. (It's not clear when, or if, carriers will be expected to be accurate all of the time.)

Supporters of the rule will likely herald it as another effort to bring emergency calls into the 21st century by recognizing that the current system, which was built for landlines, is failing people in moments of crisis because it hasn't evolved with consumer technology.

But some, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have already noted that there are some questions about how carries will abide by this rule without compromising privacy. As the EFF explains in a blog post outlining the rules' problems and potential solutions:

Better 911 location accuracy has the potential to make a huge positive impact in peoples’ lives. But if people are concerned that this benefit will come at the expense of their privacy, they’re more likely to take steps that will prevent these location services from working properly. In order to prevent this, we need the FCC to make sure that privacy is baked in to new E911 regulations from the start. Otherwise, these rules may force people to choose between privacy and response time in an emergency, and that’s a decision nobody should have to make.
That's something third-party solutions, such as the BlueLight mobile application I wrote about earlier this month, have also worked to balance. BlueLight only gathers a location when it's told to, for example, and provides the data with a street address or landmark.

The FCC's new rule goes much further than that. It requires carriers to more closely track their customers -- and even though it's for a commendable reason, it's hard not to fear how this improved location monitoring could be abused by government agencies.

It's a bit like the devil's bargain offered up whenever someone questions government surveillance programs: you can either trade your privacy in exchange for safety, or you can evade these programs' unblinking gaze and risk harm. The only difference is, this time it's the FCC instead of the intelligence community offering up the bargain.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]