Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How a Smartphone That Measures Altitude Could Help Save Lives

December 4, 2014
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How a Smartphone That Measures Altitude Could Help Save Lives
New smartphone technology will make it possible to get exact readings of where a caller is within a building. Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images
There are privacy concerns, however.

While you’ve been able to identify a person’s location via their cell phone for awhile now, it’s been impossible to discern their altitude. Practically speaking, if someone is in an apartment building, you couldn’t tell if they were on the second floor or the seventh.

Until now.

Using a smartphone’s built-in technologies that measure barometric pressure, a user’s altitude can be calculated within just a few feet, according to the Washington Post. And since cell phone users are always updating their devices, this technology is already in the hands of more than 100 million people.

The benefits of this technology are numerous. One such usage could help 911 operators obtain much more precise readings of where a caller is within a building. GPS technology requires a direct line of sight to satellites, rendering it ineffective indoors and creating issues for dispatchers and paramedics, especially when the caller is unable or unwilling to provide the specifics of their location. With this new technology, however, a caller’s exact location (i.e. what floor they’re on) will be available.

This has caused much concern to public-safety groups, who state there is no restrictions keeping intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI from commandeering the technology for their own uses.

“This puts those of use in the civil-liberties community in a difficult position of opposing the creation of location services for emergency services, because we know the FBI will ask for it later, and we don’t have the power to stop them when they ask for it,” says Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for American Civil Liberties Union to the Washington Post.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the process of updating its requirements for the ways wireless carriers handle 911 calls, demanding the construction of an alternative, precise location pinpointing system capable of finding callers even in buildings. This proposal has triggered a battle amongst lobbyists, with some public safety groups supporting strict FCC rules, and wireless carriers pushing for slower implementation of different technology.

“We are committed to both improving public safety and protecting consumer privacy,” says David Simpson, chief of FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau.

Though this stagnation is causing concern in those in public service. “The [wireless] industry is basically trying to slow the train down,” says Harold Schaitberger, general president of International Association of Firefighters. “That’s very troubling to us.”

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