GPS, Ambulances, and Data Protection–The CSI Effect

Last week the Irish Times published an article that I can only describe as poorly researched.

The gist of the article was that ambulance services were finding it difficult to get to the right addresses in time to save people because Data Protection rules don’t allow them to use GPS location of people’s phones.

Bullshit Improperly researched. Section 8 of the Data Protection Acts permits processing of and disclosure of data in exactly these circumstances, either under Section 8(d) (where there is a risk to the life or well being of a data subject) or Section 8(f) of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. This is a fact that so obscured by “The Man” that it can only be uncovered in one of five ways:

  1. Looking up the text of the Data Protection Acts on the DPC website (
  2. Putting in a query to the Data Protection Commissioner’s Press Office.
  3. Contacting one of the various Data Protection consultants and trainers who frequent social media (*koff*)
  4. Asking a lawyer with Data Protection expertise
  5. Contact Digital Rights Ireland

At no time would the journalist have to venture into a multistorey carpark to meet a shadowy figure to uncover the truth.

SI336 introduced some elements about the use of location data requiring consent, but that was in the context of processing for commercial purposes and would be superseded by the Section 8 exemption in practice.

The Science Bit

That’s the law bit. Now the science bit. Get ready…

Life is not like CSI.

Everyone’s experience of GPS is that you have a device in your hand and the device knows where you are. that’s because the device is communicating with a satellite (and in the case of a mobile phone what ever cell towers are in range and potentially wifi networks you are connected to) to triangulate your location.

But that takes place ON YOUR DEVICE. The telcos don’t actually have that data (but Apple would if you have an iPhone and Google do if you run Android). Telcos would need to have an app installed to access that functionality of the phone and relay it to their data centres.

They can, however, extrapolate your data based on your nearest cell towers when you make or receive calls or texts. But that data is NOT PROCESSED REAL TIME, other than at a very low level in the network. Accessing it for law enforcement purposes can be a laborious task taking a number of days. Accessing it for the telco’s own uses happens in batch mode as well.  Also it is NOT ACCURATE – it can be as imprecise as up to a 5km radius in rural areas (do your sums on that to find the total area) and sometimes it is way off (I’ve been billed for data usage on a device that was in the UK but was not registered as having been roaming). So you stand a reasonable chance of getting the right county, but not always.

Yes, location based targetting of messages can occur but that happens by the telco setting up a geo-fence based on an area around one or more cell towers and then pinging your details when your phone becomes active within the cell (a basic network level activity). They are waiting for you based on defined criteria. And it is not a real-time monitoring. They can’t easily identify where you are at a point in time. They can identify that you have come into a defined area they are monitoring.

Real-time pinging of mobile devices based on cell tower locations is technically possible but it isn’t easily done and can require a lot of resources.

If the Ambulance services wanted GPS data there is an easy way to get it. Develop a smartphone app for calling the emergency services that will relay device information and GPS co-ordinates and perhaps other data (like photos of the injured party or accident scene). Just like calling a Hailo cab. Of course that will only work for the people with a smartphone who have the app, who remember they have it, and who know how to use it.

But please don’t make up stuff about it being the Data Protection Act’s fault.

And do bear in mind that not every phone in the country is a smartphone with GPS capability. Landlines still exist and are used, and basic mobile phones lack GPS functionality.

More Science

Apart from “Hailo for Ambulances” (which I think I’ll have to go and patent really quickly),  postcodes would be a better solution to avoid ambulances being sent to the wrong places (promised since 2008). Or using MPRN numbers from ESB meters in buildings where available, which allow addresses to be resolved reasonably accurately from the ESB Network.

Each of these have data protection issues, but not in the context of emergency services. Section 8 of the Data Protection Acts takes care of that.

More Journalism

So, can we please stop reprinting press releases without fact checking please Irish Times. 30 seconds. That’s all it would take. A call, an email, a DM on Twitter…

But it would avoid you being st00ged into printing utter nonsense about Data Protection stuff which you WILL be called on publically by the very people who could have told you to tread carefully if you’d asked.

Posted in Data Protection, Ethics & Law of Information, Information Quality and tagged .