For generations, calling for help has been simple. The response has often been plagued by racism, classism, and other forms of bias, but the mechanics were straightforward: you dialed 911. It was actually a technical innovation for its time, a unified telephone dispatch system, using the name number from coast to coast, replacing the need to memorize individual fire, police, and ambulance service numbers. But in the smartphone and smart device era, the system is showing its age.
The solution heralded by many is the so-called “Next Generation 911” system. The program began in 2003 by looking at the need to add text messaging capability. This makes a lot of sense, given the range of situations where victims would be able to text, but not call, everything from a mass shooting to a medical emergency. And if text messaging were the only feature, there might not be any concerns. But Next Generation 911 goes much further.
Next Generation 911 allows cities to track the location of wireless devices, to accept photos and videos. In short: Next Generation 911 is about data collection. There are times when data collection is helpful, but it always comes at a price.
The most obvious concern is cybersecurity. When you give countless local agencies the ability to track our location and other data through the 911 system, you create an enticing new target for hackers. And it’s not just the civil rights advocates who are getting nervous. Even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security blanched at the looming cybersecurity risks of the switch to Next Generation 911.
Often the best defense against hackers is simply not having data online. But with Next Generation 911, not only will the public be able to send data files to 911 operators, but the systems themselves will be integrated, as part of a national standardized deployment. Suddenly, we have a platform that “Allows for potential attacks to quickly escalate or proliferate across systems.” Compromising a small town sheriff’s office potentially would now give a way to also grab information from a large, nearby city.
Sadly, the threat of 911 hacking isn’t theoretical: it’s already happened. In 2018, hackers managed to disrupt Baltimore’s 911 system for more than 17 hours. Baltimore may have had the most high-profile case, but it was far from alone. From 2016-2018, more than 184 public safety agencies were successfully targeted. And as more of these agencies add even more connectivity to their 911 systems, the number will only grow.
But even when the data is kept under lock and key, there are other dangers that come from putting this powerful new surveillance tool in the hands of the police. Not only does Next Generation 911 make it easier to track individuals’ locations, but it raises enormous concerns about video surveillance. A panicked relative sending a video to get help for a loved one in medical distress is valuable. A neighbor who racially profiles the couple next door and sends videos to the police is beyond creepy.
For nearly two decades, community advocates have objected to the ways that “See Something, Say Something” campaigns transform in to a national security rationale for racial and religious profiling. All too often, these tips reveal more about the prejudices of the tipper than the behavior of those being spied on. Take, for example, Cindy McCain’s report to police that a mother was trafficking her own daughter. Her explanation: “I spotted — it looked odd — it was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had.”
Before focusing your outrage on Mrs. McCain, it’s important to note just how common this experience has become. In a recent Massachusetts case, an entire subway line was delayed for a police investigations when riders “noticed two people that appeared to be Middle Eastern.” In California, the ACLU has documented numerous individuals who were listed in Suspicious Activity Reports for simply being of “Middle Eastern Descent” or “speaking a foreign language.” Just a few weeks ago, a New York City ferry operator kicked Muslim families offboard for being a “security risk.”
Given the track record of bias and profiling, we need to be careful about transforming every bystander’s cellphone into a potential government surveillance camera. Even if most of these videos are ignored by police, how long will they be retained? Will police catalogue them with facial recognition? Will there be any safeguards to prevent individual officers from leaking disparaging or degrading footage? Sadly, we just don’t know the answer.
We may have gotten used to having cameras on nearly every block, but it’s different when bystanders bring this same tracking into our buildings and homes. None of this is a reason to block Next Generation 911, but we have to make sure we get the details right. Above all, we have to make sure that we don’t let this crucial helpline turn into a vehicle for mass surveillance.