Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

06.3.2020 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 188


I recently had an experience I would not wish upon my worst enemy (I don’t actually have enemies – but the expression sounds very dramatic!) My wife and I were sitting at home relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. Our four children were at various locations away from home including our youngest daughter on a student exchange in Japan.

Our blissful peace was interrupted by our gate bell. We checked the video intercom and two uniformed officers were at our gate.

The officers told us they were here to help as they had received a triple zero emergency call. We assured the officers we hadn’t made the call and they then quoted a mobile number.

Our hearts sank. The mobile was the number of one of our daughters. Not the kind of news you want. You imagine the worst possible scenario with your daughter trying to ring for help. A very quick phone call to our daughter was met with great relief when we found out she was enjoying a day at the races and had managed to accidentally hold down a key combination that made an emergency call. The officers came to our house – not the race track which was hundreds of kilometres away - because that was the registered address of our daughter’s mobile.

Most people would assume that the ‘authorities’ have the ability to track your phone if they needed to do so. If you watch a few movies you might also be under the impression that the ‘authorities’ can also use a satellite to zoom in on a number plate on a moving car and hit a magic ‘enhance’ button.

For the people that made the 8.9 million calls to triple zero last year, they would be well aware of the fact that the operators have no idea where your phone is located. The operator will ask for an exact location including the nearest cross street. Pretty tough if you are on a country road!

That is set to change as Australia will shortly see the rollout of automatic mobile location (AML) technology that will allow location accuracy within three metres.

The technology involves collaboration with the manufacturers and telecommunication providers and will be managed by the Department of Communications and the Arts. This is still a work in process but I would expect to see the connections completed by the end of this year. The end result will allow a triple zero operator to receive a call from a person using a mobile phone and almost immediately know their location. This allows the operator to find out more about the issue and send first responders to the exact location. As an added bonus, it will mean that the thirty per cent of non-emergency and prank calls to triple zero will reduce. If a caller knows that their location can be tracked to such accurate levels, they may think twice before calling triple zero to order a pizza or ask the time.

While this all sounds fantastic and will save lives, there is always the potential for the number of organisations accessing the information to grow. I am quite comfortable with triple zero knowing my location when I make a call, but I would prefer Harness Racing NSW and Bankstown City Council didn’t know my exact location. These were just two organisations who previously requested access to telecommunications data without a warrant. Those requests were specifically related to metadata but it will require vigilance to ensure AML data doesn’t suffer from scope creep.

Tell me how you think we could improve the current triple zero service at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson