E911, Your Privacy, And The FBI

Several years ago I remember the transition from analog to digital cell phones. For those that remember those old beasty analog sets, they were commonly known as "bag phones" because they were literally in a black vinyl bag (or ritzy leather if you had the money). Owners of these bag phones would typically place them below a car’s center console because there was more or less nowhere else to put it. They operated fine for the time, but wow did they get hot. Anyone who has ever owned a bag phone knows this.

At the time, I was living in Connecticut and out of curiosity asked a cell phone sales rep if one could buy a used bag phone for use with new service. His reply was no, because the state prohibited any new wireless phone service attached to an old analog cell phone because it was not E911 enabled.

This was when I first started asking around about what E911 was and how it worked. The "E" is for "Enhanced". How it works is that each phone has a physical address assigned to it. When used, an emergency call is routed to what’s known as a Public Safety Answering Point, abbreviated as PSAP. If you call in an emergency, the location of the emergency via your cell phone’s embedded GPS is given to the call center so they can better assist you.

All of this is good stuff.

However there was always a question lurking in the back of my mind, that being: "How do we know this tracking ability isn’t used for other purposes without consent?"

You give consent to be tracked the moment you use E911, and that’s fine because you want it to happen. You want the emergency center to know your location so they can better assist you.

It was the non-consent I was concerned about. Why? Because there is no way to turn E911 off. Whenever your cell phone is on, so is E911. Always.

It’s been documented that the FBI has used E911 to track individuals before. Well over 100 times, in fact.

This is such a hot-button privacy issue that it was debated in Federal appeals court. Why? Because it concerns the Fourth Amendment (that’s the one that guards you against illegal search and seizure).

Later this year the legislation concerning E911 will be revisited and examined because the last time the law was written concerning this was 1986. Yes, that means it hasn’t been updated in 24 years. And a lot of things have happened in the world of mobile tech since 1986.

A few quick questions answered:

Does this mean E911 is bad?

No. It’s a valuable life-saving service and needs to be there. When you call in a 911 from your land-line phone, your location is given based on your wired location. E911 is the same thing in a wireless version.

Is the FBI tracking you via your cell phone?


Is it good the law will be revisited/reexamined?

Yes. The law is old and needs to be updated. The fact the Senate Judiciary Chairman said he would reexamine it later this year is a very good example of your tax dollars being put to proper use.

Why is E911 and the FBI a privacy issue at all?

It’s only an issue so that Fourth Amendment citizen rights can be properly recognized per the letter of the law – which it currently isn’t.

Will I be notified if the law changes?

For those of you with post-paid wireless plans, most if not all of you have periodically received plain white letters in the mail from your wireless carrier with privacy notice updates. If and when the 1986 law is updated, that’s how you’ll be notified of it.

When will the 1986 law be updated?

I don’t even know if it will be updated at all, but when the Senate Judiciary Chairman says he’ll have a look, that usually means changes are coming. In this case, good changes.

Were I to guess (because laws take time to be updated), if a change/update occurs, it will be in late 2010 or early 2011.


  1. The simple answer is is that not all cellphones are embedded with GPS. You can be tracked GPS or not.

    ALL cellphone locations can be tracked to within a few hundred meters by the signal strength (gain) that is being received by the nearest cell phone transceiver towers. This is especially true in urban environments where there are more cellphone transceivers per square mile.

    If you understand navigation, you understand how triangulation works. Where the lines of position intersect, this is close to where you are. The signal strength that three towers are receiving can be converted to three arcs, and where those arcs intersect is where you are very close to.

    It does not matter whether or not your cellphone has an embedded GPS. You can be tracked by the method I described regardless. Not only can it be done, it is done.

    Also, GPS is worthless indoors unless you are standing right next to a window. This of course is not true with cellphones. Its easy to track you indoors as well.

    • Well, if you want to get really technical about it..

      E911 compliance, a.k.a. location-capable, was mandatory by Dec. 31, 2005. This made wireless carriers provide phones that used the E911 service to relay coordinate location data of callers to within roughly just shy of 1,000 feet for emergency calls.

      The minimum of number towers to relatively fix a position is two. This is called the AOA (angle of arrival). Another is TDOA (time difference of arrival) which is multilateration. And then there’s location signatures but I won’t even get into that (takes too long to explain). 🙂

      Contrary to popular belief, GPS is not worthless indoors any longer. Things like WAAS, SiRF and ephemeris data prediction (mostly) fixed that; it depends what GPS tech is within the wireless phone.

      In addition, some carriers used GPS while others use A-GPS – which was specifically developed for E911 use.

  2. Just to clear something up…

    Signal gain drops with the inverse square of the distance from the source. This is how gain is converted into distance and therefore how a line of position (LOP) is electronically drawn.

  3. It’s all right, one can pretty much wipe their ass with the constitution, thanx to Big Brother. So it really doesn’t matter. They’re either after you or they are not!

Speak Your Mind