panicbutton

The Department of Telecom has made it mandatory for all mobile phones sold in the country from 1st January 2018 to have GPS in built. Additionally, all phones will also need to have a physical panic button.

The panic button requirement will be implemented from the 1st of January 2017. Feature phones will need to implement it by configuring keys 5 or 9 to play the dual role of a panic button, while smartphones will need to configure the on-off button to trigger panic signal when pressed thrice in quick succession. The TRAI had asked for a definitive date to make GPS and a panic button mandatory on all phones in October last year.

Note that it’s not clear if the who the panic button is supposed to call, but we expect it will be the local police station and possibly a preconfigured number of a relative or friend. The ministry will also work with smartphone makers to make the feature available in existing phones through a software patch. However, this isn’t a practical solution for feature phones.

Mandatory location based servers: Interestingly, back in 2013, the DoT had asked all telecom operators to install Location Based Servers (LBS) at the earliest to aid location based tracking of calls up to 50 meters in real time. This was after all the telecom companies failed to meet the deadline for installing LBS in 2012 owing to the high cost of installation.

As we had said then, the issue of installing Location Based Servers by telecom operators has been on the radar since 26th October 2009; Medianama has been tracking this issue since April 2010. In response to an RTI filed with the DoT, Medianama had received copies of the notices issued by the DoT to the telecom operators along with Bharti Airtel’s response to the notice expressing concern over the high cost of installation (Rs. 4500 crores) and consumer privacy issues. The current move to make GPS mandatory on all phones will enable the DoT to track user location in real time, making something like LBS redundant.

Medianama’s take: While we understand that DoT might want better location data when an emergency number is called, we feel the mandate to push GPS on all devices is a little overreaching. As we have said before, this move will raise the cost of manufacturing feature phones (which can’t really do things like display a map anyway), driving up the cost for the end user. There are even really low cost Android phones that come without GPS, enabling the really underprivileged to also get online. We understand that technologies like GPS will eventually become standard, but meanwhile pushing it in such an unhealthy way can only be detrimental to mobile and mobile internet adoption.

The second issue is that of user privacy, which the Indian government really, really doesn’t take seriously. A sanction to implement GPS on all phones without a proper legislation in place to protect the privacy of citizens, could easily lead to misuse of such a potent technology. Would the Government be allowed to track users without their knowledge? Will it be able to remotely turn GPS on with the justification of national security? Without a proper legal sanction to protect privacy, there are chances that such issues may not be raised with the concerned authority until it is too late.

Parliamentary standing committee on IT: Note that privacy is taking center stage in policy issues in India, especially after the Government of India said in the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to Privacy. The country doesn’t have a privacy law, and is setting up surveillance systems like the Centralized Monitoring System, NETRA, NATGRID (for collecting data from across databases), and linking citizens and databases across the unique identity number in Aadhaar.

Also read: An overview of India’s cyber security agencies

Image source: Flickr user wackystuff under CC BY-SA 2.0