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Emergency Response Numbers are Not Keeping Up with Technology and Society

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August 14, 2014

Emergency Response Numbers are Not Keeping Up with Technology and Society

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

The U.S. emergency response system is not keeping up. While 911 has served the U.S. well for quite some time, the advances in voice-over-IP (VoIP) and mobile technology are antiquating services.

E911 is being developed, but currently 911 is not properly handling the explosion of ways people might reach out for emergency services.

One challenge is mobile VoIP. With a landline, it is easy collect location information based on the number that is doing the calling. Many people are now using VoIP for their phone service, however.

One of the advantages of these VoIP solutions, aside from reduced cost, is that they make calling more mobile; you can use your VoIP phone number from most mobile phones, making VoIP even more convenient and ever-present than even cell phones (which can suffer from drained batteries or lack of cellular signal).

While mobile VoIP is starting to become a popular option, it doesn’t play nice with much of the 911 technology currently in play because mobile VoIP can be hard to geo-locate with current emergency service technology.

Texting for help also is something that more are finding useful. But currently, most 911 systems are unable to accept text messages. There are some initiatives to bring texting to emergency service numbers, and the technology certainly is there. But emergency response networks are slow in rolling them out since it requires a technology overhaul.

Then there are new abuses from the hacking of 911 systems. Recently a 12-year-old boy punked celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber by using the 911 system to dispatch a SWAT team to their homes, according to the The Register (News - Alert). The boy used a text telephone (TTY) used by the disabled to make his prank. These terminals are transferred to an operator, who will the call the emergency services and relay the information, thus circumventing much of the location and user information usually included in calls.

While researchers have shown that it is hard but not impossible to spoof 911 call location, the systems still remain exposed to hacker attack. Physical security in such centers is often lax and there is a lack of penetration testing, both digital and physical, making emergency response networks exposed as hacking techniques grow more advanced.

Emergency response services need to evolve—and evolve quickly.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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