In short: Google has now confirmed the launch of its Emergency Location Service (ELS) for Android in the US. The ELS is designed to ensure more accurate location information on Android device owners is shared with emergency services as and when needed. As part of the announcement, Google confirmed which companies are helping with the US rollout, as well as detailing what security and privacy- safeguards are in place to protect device owners.
Background: In spite of US support for this service only now going live, the service has been a long time in the making. For example, ELS started its rollout in Europe back in 2016. Since then it has slowly expanded to more areas and regions with Google confirming today that it’s already operational in fourteen countries, and has already proved its use in improving response times. In terms of the US, Google has confirmed T-Mobile and RapidSOS are assisting with the service, while residents in the US Virgin Islands are being covered through a partnership with West. While this evidently means T-Mobile customers are now covered by their carrier, that does not necessarily mean non-T-Mobile customers are not covered. As RapidSOS is an IP-based solution and will account for any individual device owner who falls within a RapidSOS-covered area, regardless of carrier.
Impact: Needless to say, the idea here is to ensure lives can be saved, and assistance provided when needed more quickly than before. This is not only in terms of seconds faster (which can be the difference), but also to account for less obvious situations, like for example when people are struggling to relay their whereabouts due to the ongoing situation, or those who might find it difficult to provide their location due to language difficulties. It’s also important to note this service does not require any action on the user’s part with Google confirming 99-percent of Android devices support the feature at the device level. As a result, when (and only when - one of the privacy-focused protections) an emergency call is made, the device will transmit a more precise location to the emergency service by not only drawing on GPS, but also mobile networks, Wi-Fi data, and even device sensors. With Google likening the process to that currently used by Google Maps. As part of the privacy safeguards, Google also confirmed the data is not stored or even shared with Google’s servers. It also just happens between the device and the emergency services, and again, only when the device recognizes an emergency call has been initiated.