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Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act

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Citation Edit

Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act, Pub. L. No. 106-81 (1999) (full-text).

Overview Edit

Since 1996, the FCC has issued a series of orders to ensure that users of wireless phones and certain other mobile devices can reach emergency services personnel by dialing "911". The FCC rules, referred to as “Enhanced 911” or "E911", apply to all cellular and personal communications services (PCS) licensees, and to certain Specialized Mobile Radio licensees.[1]

Because the technologies needed to implement E911 enable wireless telecommunications carriers to track, with considerable precision,[2] a user’s location any time the device is activated, some worry that information on an individual’s daily habits — such as eating, working, and shopping — will become a commodity for sale to advertising companies, for example.

In 1999, Congress passed the "Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act,"[3] often called “the 911 Act.” In addition to making 911 the universal emergency assistance number in the United States, the 911 Act also amended section 222 of the Communications Act of 1934[4] which establishes privacy protections for customer proprietary network information (CPNI) held by telecommunications carriers. Inter alia, the 911 Act added “location” to the definition of CPNI.

Section 222 required the FCC to establish rules regarding how telecommunications carriers treat CPNI. The FCC adopted its Third Report and Order on CPNI on July 16, 2002,[5] setting forth a dual approach in which “opt-in” is required in some circumstances, and “opt-out” is permitted in others.

In addition to adding location to the definition of CPNI, the 911 Act amended Section 222(d)(4) regarding authorized uses of CPNI. As amended, the law determines those circumstances under which wireless carriers need to obtain a customer’s prior consent to use wireless location information, and when prior consent is not required. A customer’s prior consent is not required (§222(d)) —

  • to provide call location information to a PSAP or to emergency service and law enforcement officials in order to respond to the user’s call for emergency services;
  • to inform the user’s legal guardian or members of the user’s immediate family of the user’s location in an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or serious physical harm; or
  • to information or database management services providers solely for purposes of assistance in the delivery of emergency services in response to an emergency.

In a newly created Section 222(f), the 911 Act states that, except in the circumstances listed above, without express prior authorization, customers shall not be considered to have approved the use or disclosure of or access to (1) call location information, or (2) automatic crash notification information to anyone other than for use in an automatic crash notification system.

The phrase “express prior authorization” is not further defined in the law, however, nor the measures telecommunications carriers must take to obtain it.


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