Emergency Response will be only as useful as privacy laws allow

Contributed by: 
Kevin Pomfret

There are several free and “for fee” apps in the iPhone and Android app marketplaces that leverage the Open GeoSMS standard recently approved by the OGC. One of the apps’ primary benefits is for people to send location-enabled texts to first responders in order to learn the best evacuation procedures during a crisis and/or to facilitate rescue.   Without the automatic inclusion of location in the texts, first responders often have difficulty determining the location of the sender of the text, and how best to respond.

These apps, and many others like them, will make it much easier for first responders to identify the location of individuals during emergencies. This will save lives and reduce the extent of property damage. However, the utility of these apps is predicated upon (i) laws and policies that do not make it overly complicated or administratively burdensome to collect an individual’s location, and (ii) users that feel comfortable enabling the location features on their mobile devices so that these apps can perform as designed.

Unfortunately, we are far from this reality today for a number of reasons. Every time a new location-enabled technology is introduced, media reports surface about the potential privacy risks. Inevitably these reports include measures that consumers can (should?) take to disable the feature that discloses their location.  (These are the same features that permit determining a location during an emergency.)  Soon thereafter, someone on Capitol Hill suggest that there needs to be a Congressional hearing, and possibly legislation, that protects consumers from this outrageous intrusion on privacy.  The value of the technology to be used for ‘good’ inevitably is lost or downplayed.

As a result, there are a number of bills before Congress that would regulate the collection, use and/or transfer of geolocation information in some manner. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department of Commerce and the White House have all issued reports that discuss the need to regulate the collection of an individual’s location.  Meanwhile, consumers are still struggling to identify the real privacy risks and what they need to do protect themselves. If consumers, policymakers and regulators are not educated on the value of geospatial technology so they can better balance the benefits vs. the risks of disclosing their location, there is a good chance that these app will never reach their full potential.  That would be a shame.

Kevin Pomfret is President at GeoLaw, P.C.; Executive Director, Centre for Spatial Law and Policy; and a member of the OGC Board of Directors