Communication Breakdown

Incident sparks debate on emergency access to wireless location information.

by / May 2, 2006

Early on Dec. 23, 2005, Jason Cochran of Eastvale, Calif., secured his 10-month-old son Wade into a car seat in the family's SUV and left the engine idling while he ran inside to get Wade's 3-year-old brother. Moments later, Cochran came out to find the SUV-- and the baby -- gone.

When the Cochrans called 911, they told responders there was a cell phone equipped with a GPS chip in the vehicle. If police could track the phone, they could find the car. However, when the Riverside County Sheriff's Department called wireless carrier Sprint Nextel to obtain the location information, the company wouldn't release it.

Although the incident ended happily -- the thief eventually abandoned the SUV and the baby was safely returned to his parents -- it's still unclear why sheriff's deputies couldn't obtain the location data from Sprint Nextel.

Was it a case of a privacy policy gone awry or simple human error? No one seems sure, but the episode has left law enforcement and wireless carriers seeking better ways to work together when location tracking becomes life threatening.

Potentially Deadly Delay
To be sure, a wireless carrier cannot release GPS location data to just anyone.

"We do have a very strict policy on maintaining and protecting our customers' privacy," said Kathleen Dunleavy, a Sprint Nextel spokeswoman, and that policy is based on provisions in the Federal Telecommunications Act that apply to all wireless carriers.

The concern is that someone with no legal right to the information, perhaps a stalker or an aggrieved ex-spouse, may try to use GPS data to track down a subscriber.

"Given the political uproar over disclosures of call-detail records to people who later turn out to be unauthorized, we must be careful," Dunleavy said. This means making sure that if the company divulges location information, it does so strictly according to law.

Every single police department in the country has Sprint Nextel's phone number and can initiate procedures for tracking a phone in an emergency, Dunleavy said. She explained that wireless customers must sign a form, which should in turn be faxed by a police department with a note on its official letterhead so the cell phone company can verify the request's authenticity.

"We're off and can begin tracking the phone number within minutes," she said of the company's reaction after receiving the fax.

In the Riverside County situation, however, the "minutes" stretched into well over an hour.

"There was some type of paperwork delay between the sheriff's office and Sprint," Dunleavy said, and this delay -- still unexplained as of early February 2006 -- kept Sprint Nextel from tracking the phone before police recovered the abandoned SUV.

Emergency requests of this type are not uncommon.

"I think last year alone we had 2,000 requests," Dunleavy said, adding that the procedure for responding works incredibly well. "We're evaluating our policy and our procedures now; but overall, 99 percent of the time, this works flawlessly."

Human Error
A cell phone with a GPS chip can determine its own location with the same accuracy as any other GPS device. That's often within just a few feet, depending on how many satellites the receiver can "see" and on other local conditions.

Neil Lingle, Riverside County's under sheriff, speculates that human error may have caused the problem. Employees in the sheriff's Communications Division are supposed to make these kinds of requests to wireless carriers, and they did call Sprint Nextel on Dec. 23, 2005.

But so did an officer in the field. Not versed in the proper procedures, that officer may have reached an inexperienced operator.

"I'm guessing here, but I think the operator didn't recognize the degree of seriousness," Lingle said, and perhaps started following instructions for releasing customer information in an ordinary police investigation rather than instructions for a dire emergency.

"I've been around this business long enough to know they were on a holiday weekend, they were probably running short-handed," Lingle said. "I can understand that. But the fact is that we didn't get what we needed right away."

Dunleavy, however, said that staffing was not an issue for Sprint Nextel.

"We always keep this number staffed, even during a holiday weekend," she said, adding that the protocol for an emergency situation was properly followed on that day.

When John Tavaglione, supervisor for Riverside County's District 2, learned of the incident the next day, he placed a new item on the agenda for the Board of Supervisors' Jan. 9 meeting. He proposed that Sprint Nextel not be allowed to build any more cell phone towers in the county until the carrier identified and solved the problem.

"That got their attention," said Tavaglione, adding that he was pleased when a Sprint Nextel representative attended the meeting to apologize. "She indicated that they were understaffed and this is not the way they attempt to do things. She was great," he said.

Another representative who spoke at the meeting, however, said that the company had done no wrong, Tavaglione added.

"We made it clear, 'We don't want to put a moratorium on your towers,'" Tavaglione said. "'We want you to fix this, whatever that means.' [Both Sprint Nextel representatives] agreed they would sit down with our Sheriff's Department and hopefully find a way for them and other law enforcement agencies to move this through in a much more efficient way."

Tavaglione dropped the idea of a cell phone tower moratorium when the county's attorney pointed out there was no real connection between the Dec. 23 incident and tower construction.

"I said, 'That's fine,'" he recalled. "I think they've gotten the message. As long as they're willing to get to the table and work together, let's go that route."

As of early February 2006, the ball apparently was still in Sprint Nextel's court.

"We have not been notified by them that their investigation is completed," Lingle said. In the meantime, the Sheriff's Department is taking steps to ensure field officers and the Communications Division follow the same procedures in emergencies and understand wireless carriers' policies, he said.

State Legislation
The incident prompted the Sheriff's Department and several wireless carriers to give their input on a bill in the state Legislature designed to avoid similar problems in the future.

State Assemblyman John Benoit, whose legislative district includes Riverside County, introduced the bill in February 2006. It addresses situations like the Cochrans' -- when the subscriber isn't in possession of the phone -- and 911 calls when the caller is ill or injured and can't report his or her location.

The FCC has ordered that wireless carriers deploy technology to ensure that when someone calls 911 from a cell phone, responders can see the caller's location just as they would on a call from a wired phone. That's the main reason manufacturers started including GPS chips in cell phones.

"But then they have this privacy issue that prohibits them from releasing the information in certain circumstances," said Benoit, a former California Highway Patrol commander.

Benoit's bill requires that if a fully identified public safety officer calls a wireless carrier stating an exigent circumstance and provides a customer's telephone number, the carrier will call back with the requested location information. It eliminates the need to fax paperwork, and protects the carrier from criminal or civil liability for releasing the information.

That protection is crucial for wireless providers, who are often caught between a real desire to help and numerous privacy statutes that restrict their ability to disclose information, Benoit said.

According to Lingle, however, law enforcement is also to blame for carriers' restrictive policies. Too often, when a carrier releases information on the promise that police will return with the court order, subpoena or other documentation the law requires, the police don't comply in the end, he said.

This leaves the carrier open to liability claims.

"[The new law] would give them limited immunity for providing basic information when they know they're talking to a law enforcement or public safety agency, and it is a desperate situation where someone's going to get hurt or die," said Benoit.

Besides working on the problem through the California Legislature, Benoit is trying to stir national interest in the issue.

"We're talking with [U.S.] Senator [Dianne] Feinstein about a parallel federal piece of legislation," he said. "Some of her staff and my staff have been talking, so I hope we'll move forward on that."

Over the years, carriers' response to requests for location data has improved, Benoit said. "It used to be a couple of hours before you could get any information, and sometimes you were thwarted completely," he said. "Now they're down to about 10 minutes and written reports, some of them. I want to get to the point where it's even more expeditious than that."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
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