An alarming feature of Android was recently brought to my attention when I had to place a call to 911 (for those outside of the North American Numbering Plan area this is the number for emergency services) after witnessing a driver barrel through two red lights and nearly strike a pedestrian. After pulling over to write down as much of the license plate as I could remember I phoned 911 and waited several minutes to get an operator. I read back the partial plate and described what I had witnessed, they confirmed my phone number and asked for my name which I happily gave in the event I was needed as a witness. I ended the call and attempted to make a Facebook post about the experience and found I had no data connection, could not place a call and could not get any SMS or MMS messages to send. Peculiar.
At this point I thought perhaps my phone was being odd and locked the screen with the intention of unlocking it, toggling airplane mode on and off, and attempting to use data or send SMS/MMS messages again and this is when I noticed two messages on my lock screen that I had never seen before.
Odd. I still could not use my phone for calls or data so I waited for the timer to expire, as soon as it did my ability to call, send SMS/MMS and use data was restored and I fired off messages to a few friends asking if they'd ever seen such, the answer was no. One of these friends is on the same carrier as I, Project Fi which is an MVNO run by Google that uses three different cellular networks (Spring, T-Mobile and US Cellular) for coverage. This friend had needed to call 911 himself a couple weeks before and had not seen this message so I dismissed it as odd.
Two days later I was going through my screenshot album and saw the un-cropped original of the above image and something fired in my brain. This is bad, this is very bad. I began to look into this and finally found that at least as recently as May 13th, 2016 this has been a feature of the Android operating system, I suspect my friend with the same phone on the same carrier as I did does not have this update as he rooted his phone in December and has not updated it since.
Further research shows this to not be an Android only feature. A user-reported case of this occurring on their Blackberry in May of 2008, a major carrier had this documented on their site in their E911 FAQ, an FCC document from 1996 mentions selective routing of calls and callback capability and the data blocking appears to be explained away as a way to ensure Assisted GPS can function to provide your location to the emergency call center. Reports seem to vary on if you can or cannot make phone calls during this window, I personally could not get calls to go through despite having reception and being in the exact physical location I had talked to the emergency operator at in crystal-clear quality.
There are a lot of things wrong with this feature. In the event of an emergency, once you have terminated your call with emergency services, your phone is effectively a brick for 5 minutes. I can think of many scenarios off the top of my head where this could be an inconvenience:
- Your wife has delivered your child at home and you wish to celebrate by sharing the news by firing off a social media post or a few text messages to folks and tell them she is headed to the hospital and you'll be following shortly. But oh, you can't for 5 minutes
- You were in an automobile accident and for one reason or another an ambulance has been requested, the ambulance has arrived and the injured party is being taken care of and you now want to fire up your insurance provider's application to immediately start a case, upload photos and get a tow truck headed your way as your car can not leave under its own power, oh but you have to wait 5 minutes.
- An active shooter is in the area, you and several others have notified emergency services and first responders are on the scene. You do not want to stay on the line as your friend/coworker/colleague/child is also in the building and you want to make sure they are safe and to tell them to stay calm, your texts won't go through nor will your calls.
- Your office is on fire and you can hear the fire engines coming 'eeeeeeooooo eeeeeeooooo ahhhhht ahhhht ahhht eeeeeeooooo' and as a manager it is your responsibility to make sure all of your employees are safe, you look around and Steve is nowhere to be found you end the call and call Steve's cell, you can't reach him or your phone simply will not dial out as in my case. You try texting Steve, bah it won't go through! Steve's car is behind you in the car park and you tell the firefighters you can not find him and he might be in the building. In they rush, a firefighter is injured searching for Steve when come to find out he clocked out early because his wife came and got him for lunch.
These are all nuisances. After thinking up a few of these scenarios I then grew concerned. Wait, this is a software feature in your phone that detects when you have called the emergency services number. Now cellular telephones in the United States can receive emergency alerts from the government via something called Wireless Emergency Alerts which were formerly called Commercial Mobile Alert System and Personal Localized Alerting Network. The Federal Communications Commission came up with this in response to the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act passed by Congress in 2006. This system allows federal agencies to aggregate and send alerts from the President of the United States, the National Weather Service, and emergency operation centers via cell broadcast using a technology similar to that of SMS messaging. So your phone has the ability to receive pushed messages from the government, in my case Android effectively removed my ability to communicate with anyone other than the emergency services call center after having called 911. Interesting.
Now, I am not a programmer nor have I inspected the code that allows the phone to effectively disable itself for 5 minutes following a call to 911. However a fair question to ask is 'could the government, or a sufficiently skilled and motivated hacker, remotely activate this feature without a call being made. Given the fact that the government already has a way to send messages to your phone en masse during emergencies it is quite plausible that they could send a packet of data to your phone that uses this built-in feature to disable your ability to use your telephone. This possibility is terrifying.
Imagine if you will, an event takes place that causes civil unrest. A militaristic police action, marshall law, little green men landing in the middle of a sporting event, a peaceful protest, take your pick. Via the Wireless Emergency Alerts a geographical location can be targeted to send alerts relevant to that area. Something happens they want to put a lid on, instead of needing to disable cell networks of multiple carriers and/or jam cellular frequencies a few keystrokes mass message everyone in the area, it tells their phones to disable for the 5 minutes, or 60 minutes, or days. You have photos and video of the event but try as you might you cannot send them to YouTube or Facebook Live, you cannot email them or MMS them to your friends, you try and call the local media to tell them of what is going on but you cannot call out.
While I can see why this feature may have been thought up so that emergency services can contact you immediately following a call for any number of reasons, this Orwellian restriction the software places on your phone gives this author the chills. In a world were revolts and coups are something that are regularly in the news, with one coup just a few weeks old, this 'feature' on my phone does not sit well with me. Whether or not the government has the ability to remotely trigger this 'feature' is unclear, but take note in the event of an emergency your phone might be temporarily crippled when you reach out for help.