New 988 Hotline Doesn’t Currently Use Geolocation Services

Published 3:08 PM MDT, July 21, 2022

CLAIM: Using the new 988 mental health hotline “will automatically route your geolocation information to local authorities.”

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The hotline does not currently have the capability to detect the exact location of a caller, nor does it “automatically” share such information with authorities. Federal officials held a recent forum to discuss the possibility of adding geolocation capabilities to 988 in the future to connect callers with nearby crisis centers and for rare cases of responding to imminent risk.

THE FACTS: The country’s first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline went live on Saturday, as The Associated Press reported. The hotline is designed to connect callers with trained mental health counselors.

But online some social media users cautioned against using it, falsely claiming that those who contact the hotline will have their location “automatically” shared with police.

“using the new 988 services (phone or chat functions online) will automatically route your geolocation information to local authorities!” reads a tweet that circulated as a screenshot on Instagram.

That’s wrong, as a website dedicated to the hotline makes clear: “The Lifeline does not currently have the capability to directly ‘trace’ callers, chat or text users in a way the same way that 911 providers do.”

Instead, the hotline attempts to use a phone number’s area code to route callers to nearby crisis centers,which may be inaccurate since many people live or are located in places different than the area code associated with their phone number.

“In the atypical situations where emergency services must be contacted to prevent persons from seriously or fatally harming themselves, and the person is unwilling or unable to share their location information, Lifeline counselors must provide what information they have to 911 operators–the caller’s/text user’s phone number or the chat user’s IP address–to enable them to do whatever they can to locate the individual,” the hotline website adds.

FCC spokesperson Katie Gorscak confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that geolocation services are “not currently enabled for 988.”

The agency did hold a forum in May to explore incorporating geolocation capabilities into 988.

The purpose of the lifeline is to connect those in need of help with professionals who can assist directly by phone, said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Those trained crisis counselors answering the call can actually resolve anywhere between 80 and 98% of calls over the phone,” she said. “We’re actually reducing the need for an in-person response.”

But Wesolowski said that incorporating geolocation technology would make it easier to accurately route calls to local assistance centers that can provide resources in that community. It would also be valuable in rare cases where dispatching emergency services is warranted, she said.

Unlike 988, calls to 911 are paired with geolocation information, said Brandon Abley, director of technology at the National Emergency Number Association, a 911-focused nonprofit group.

If a 988 counselor finds there may be an imminent risk, that call could be transferred to 911, Abley said, but even then, geolocation information would not be available if the caller did not directly dial 911.

Instead, in an event where an imminent risk is present and the 988 caller will not disclose an address, a 911 center could process an “exigent circumstances” request, which involves approvals and contacting a cell phone company to help locate the individual, Abley said.

“No one in the 911 community can do this without serious justification,” Abley said, noting that the process of locating someone could result in a delayed response.

Still, some have raised privacy and legal concerns around the prospect of pairing all 988 calls with geolocation information.

“Precise geolocation information is not needed for the vast majority of calls, and it is unclear to whom and under what circumstances this location data would be accessible, if and when the FCC does require its collection,” Chris Frascella, a law fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in an email.

Wesolowski also said there are valid concerns surrounding the use of geolocation technology for 988.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to happen to ensure that people’s private information and privacy is respected as part of that before we implement more specific location options,” she added. “I think it’s important to save lives but there has to be some extensive conversations on how we best do that, and recognize that a lot of the communities impacted have been historically marginalized and overly impacted by our law enforcement response to people in crisis."

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