by Carlo Longino

Striking A Balance On The Availability Of Location Information

from the find-them-and-bring-them-home dept

Tech web sites were covered last week with the sad story of the Kim family, who got stranded in the Oregon wildnerness. While the family's two daughters and their mother were rescued after more than a week, father and husband James Kim died after setting out from their car in an attempt to get help. It appears that one piece of information that helped rescuers narrow their search area was location information from the family's cell phones -- and it helped them narrow that area significantly. Now, in the aftermath of the tragedy, a a timeline of the search efforts shows that the cell information came from an employee of a mobile operator working on his own, and it came to authorities a week after the family was stranded, and three days after they were reported missing, leading some to wonder why this information wasn't considered sooner. This certainly isn't to criticize the efforts of the search and rescue team, but rather to wonder what can be done to make this type of potentially useful and life-saving information more easily and quickly available to investigators. This isn't the first time this issue has arisen: another operator got criticized earlier this year when one of its customer-service operators wouldn't reveal GPS information from a phone in a car stolen with a baby inside. Obviously there are privacy issues at play, and the whole HP pretexting scandal reveals that personal information is, in some cases, too easy to get, but there is a balance to be struck. In cases such as this, perhaps location information is too difficult to get to the right people, and some collaboration and coordination of efforts among mobile operators and authorities before the next tragedy happens might just help prevent it.

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  • identicon
    hautedawg, 11 Dec 2006 @ 4:20pm

    GPS information

    This information should be available in emergency situations. Once it is confirmed that it is an emergency, it is a necessity it be used. Screw privacy, if I am about to be eaten by a bear or I am lost in the snow, I want my butt pulled out of the jam...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    wto605 (profile), 11 Dec 2006 @ 4:45pm

    %@)#&^!@(& Bureaucracy

    See... this guy was smart... at some point he realized that bureaucracy was just stupid and that no one would care (in a negative sense at least) if he told authorities where the Kim's were.

    In such a litigious society we tend to forget this concept and worry about the process.

    P.S. I'm not voting for chaos, and there's still a difference between this and the 'emergency' wiretaps but sometimes there shouldn't need to be a "process" for individual events... if it's obvious, just do it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    spoon?!?!?, 11 Dec 2006 @ 5:10pm

    insert typical individualist smear here[]

    [venture capitalist] Sharing is bad for the bottom line, you dirty commie!! We can't just GIVE information away, what's in it for us? People are a dime a dozen, it's market advantage that matters!

    [spin doctor] Well, people wanted privacy, and now with the
    PRETEXTING it's hard to cooperate. It doesn't matter if it's a government number calling for info, it's what you asked for!!!

    *Voluntary GPS tracking that can be turned on or off
    *Hi-power cellstations out there
    *Maybe an emergency lodge near the few main roads people are known to travel on, manned by park rangers during the active seasons, with a bright orange microblimp attached to it with a bright orange cord so people who get lost don't die out in the wilderness. Also, put an emergency phone on the outside for when there's no ranger.
    *Incentive program for assisting government agancies in search missions

    P.S.: I'm not against capitalism or individualism. I'm just also not against collectivism and communalism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2006 @ 5:43pm

    WHY OH WHY do we buy phones with the advertised GPS navigation and E911 locators if we aren't allowed to have them put to work for US in the event of an EMERGENCY??

    Geez, this is just ridiculous!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nobody Special, 11 Dec 2006 @ 7:45pm

    easy solution

    The solution would be relatively easy to implement if coded into law. You have to create the mechanism which the information can quickly be released without court intervention. But the release can NEVER be hidden.

    Preferably all parties to the release would be required to log that they have requested, received, released information for who, when and what pretext.

    An extra layer of protection can be given by making police request the information, but the release actually goes to an independent search and rescue group. Said group would of course be responsible for reporting cases where they didn't expect to receive information. And they don't give it to police unless their organization is involved in said search.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2006 @ 8:09pm

    Is there no responsibility for Mr Kim?

    Know where you are going,

    take appropriate provisions,

    know the weather conditions and prepare accordingly,

    use a GPS Nav system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Petréa Mitchell, 12 Dec 2006 @ 8:52am

      Re: Is there no responsibility for Mr Kim?


      pay attention to warning signs,

      fight get-there-itis by reminding yourself that your safety is more important than that trying to keep to your original schedule,

      and once you realize that you're lost, stay together and stay put.

      One of the critical points of failure appears to be that someone cut the lock on a gate which was there specifically to keep people off this road in the winter. It's likely that the local rescuers didn't think to check that road immediately because they knew the gate was there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    spoon?!?!, 12 Dec 2006 @ 12:28am


    I'm a conspiracy theorist - I think Kim knew where he was going, but SOMETHING happened, and he panicked and got lost.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cleverboy, 12 Dec 2006 @ 2:19am


    I remember listening to a report on this before. A kidnapping or something had occured, and the polic were wrestling with the cell phone company, after they realized the information might help. This is horrifying to think there continues to be that descretionary blockade.

    --Unfortunately, it also goes without saying, that as soon as people understand "the system", they will determine how to "trick" the system as well (people who shouldn't get that information). I would say that a missing person report should be enough for law enforcement to tap into their cell phone for location. At least that...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Frank, 12 Dec 2006 @ 3:57am

    Big Brother is Watching; Little Sister is Taking N

    With readily available, personally identifiable GPS information (either through cell phones or “on star” technologies), I can see the following happening during the election cycle:

    Hello Mr. Candidate,

    We noticed from your GPS location information that for the last year you’ve visited the apartment of a young women consistently when your wife was out of town. We noticed last week that you drove her to a “woman’s health clinic”. Sir, did you pay for her abortion?

    No? Why not? Are you such a cheap SOB that you’d knock her up and not pay for the solution?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    The Original Just Me, 12 Dec 2006 @ 6:35am

    Re: Anon Coward

    Yeah, you are wrong. The GPS and 911 capabilities on the phone itself wouldn't have helped. They were high enough that the cell tower could receive the ID of the phone, but too far to establish a connection to the tower. They couldn't make a call or send their GPS coordinates.

    One could argue that better maps and a GPS could have helped, as well as signage on that road (yes, I'm familiar with it), and a concerted effort by the on-line mapping tools to flag seasonal roads would have made all of the difference.

    HOPEFULLY, CNET will take the ball and lead Google, MS and Yahoo (etc.) to make a difference and keep it from happening again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chicken Little, 12 Dec 2006 @ 7:51am

    Device for Rescuers

    Regardless of the GPS/privacy debate, rescuers needs a handheld device that lets them triangulate a cell phone signal. When turned on a cell phone pings for a cell tower every 5 seconds. Much like a unit for tracking wildlife collars, the user would move the antannae to locate signal direction. It would never work in urban areas with thousands of cell phones, but out in the remote areas there are not many cell phone turned on. Right now there are 3 idiot climbers stranded on Mt Hood. I hope they survive, but they are idiots for not taking a transponder this time of year, and thus risking lives of rescuers during a major storm.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Chicken Little, 12 Dec 2006 @ 10:37am

      Re: A device like this?

      This is exactly what climbers and backcountry ski'ers need (like the mentioned idiots). But for everyday folks lost in the woods, who probably have a cell phone but too far from a tower, a locator device for cell phone frequencies.

      I live in Oregon, and every year people get stranded. If they leave the phone on it would take rescuers hours to locate them (sifting through false leads from other cell phones)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    A 911 Guy, 12 Dec 2006 @ 11:10am

    There is a lot more to GPS technology than just the cell phones. Every link in the chain has to be capable of transmitting the GPS packets to the 911 dispatch center. That includes the receiving towers themselves, the lines connecting the towers with the phone company switching stations, the computers in those stations, the phone system at the 911 dispatch center, and finally the software that decode the data packets. Take any of those links in the chain away and your fancy GPS-enabled cell phone is useless. And all those links are very, very expensive. It will take years if not decades to upgrade the entire cell/tower/CO/911 framework to GPS standards, especially backwoods locations like the Oregon mountains. The sad fact is, technology cannot always save us from our own bad decisions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    |333173|3|_||3, 12 Dec 2006 @ 10:24pm

    GPS transmissions

    Why not have a basic TTS which reads out the coordinates. It can be really simple, like playing a set of MP3s, you would need ten digits, Degrees, minuttes, seconds, point, north and west in the USA, sixteen short clips which can be assembled to make the message. THis can be sent like a standard call, at teh same time as the new gps transmission system. The emergency services could connect to it as needed, and compare thier own location withthat being announced. Not very precise, but workable.

    SAR helicopters should be fited with antennae to listen out for te ping signals, allwoing moibile phones to be found. THis would allow quick inspection of all areas where there are people in the right general location.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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