New Brunswick·Opinion

911 nuisance calls grow with smartphone use

​You might think giving your child your old smartphone, particularly if you’ve removed its SIM card, is a harmless activity.

Parents are discouraged from letting children use even old smartphones unsupervised

Parents are discouraged from giving or letting their children use a smartphone because of the number of calls being made to 911, which just tie up the system for real emergencies. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

You might think giving your child your old smartphone, particularly if you've removed its SIM card, is a harmless activity. 

But according to police and emergency responders in a growing number of cities across Canada, it's a terrible idea.

That's because even without a SIM card, old cellphones and smartphones can still dial 911, tying up lines for real emergencies. 

It's part of a growing problem of nuisance and accidental 911 calls and an overall increasing cybersecurity issue for the nearly 50-year-old service.  

A number of police jurisdictions, most recently the York regional police in Ontario, have reported that as many as one in five calls to 911 are unintentional calls that are potentially tying up lines for real emergencies. 

Increasingly, police say they're seeing more and more calls from kids accidentally dialling 911 on smartphones their parents thought could no longer be used for calls because the SIM card had been removed. 

A smartphone remains a phone

All cellphones/smartphones are able to make emergency calls even without a SIM card. And because of regulations in the U.S. and Canada, it may in fact be illegal to disable that functionality.

Think of a SIM card as being similar to a ticket for a bus or train — you are able to still board the train or the bus without anyone checking your ticket. That's how cellphone networks work. Tthe SIM card is only for figuring out who you are and what additional places you can call and who should be billed. 

The bottom line is children under 12 shouldn't be playing with smartphones unsupervised. 

Some people have suggested parents consider removing the batteries from smartphones they give to children. But frankly, you shouldn't be giving smartphones to young children at all.

There are lots of cybersecurity and other kinds of risks that come from the devices. They're not toys. They contain a mix of harmful substances that can cause serious injury. 

You should only allow children who are old enough to use the devices under adult supervision. 

More nuisance calls than assault calls

The good news for New Brunswick is that according to an RCMP spokesperson who looked at 911 call trends for the past few years, the overall trend of so-called nuisance calls, which include pocket dialing and other mistaken calls, the numbers are decreasing year after year.

They are also nowhere close to the larger cities' 20 per cent nuisance call rate. Nuisance calls for the RCMP account for about five per cent of all calls, so we're doing a bit better than larger cities in Canada. 

But the bad news is the RCMP in New Brunswick still had had 5,400 nuisance calls to detachments in the province in 2016, more than the 4,800 assault calls that year. 

A growing cyber threat

There are a number of growing cyber risks that range from intentional 911 denial of service attacks to malicious software that dials 911 from infected or zombie phones to a scam that convinces teens and others to accidentally dial 911 using their smartphone digital assistant such as Apple's Siri. 

For example, last fall when a number of users clicked on a malicious link on Twitter and malware infected their Android phones, their phones were turned into what's known as a bot network, which then flooded 911 systems in 12 U.S. states with calls, crippling the system. The young man who created the malware didn't intend to bring down 911 and had done it as a prank. 

While he didn't intend to cause chaos, he still caused a significant crisis and has ended up with significant jail time. 

Unfortunately, there are also more serious criminals who've built cellphone-powered dialers that are designed to bog down 911 call centre lines. Unfortunately, some of this technology can be bought over the internet. 

And finally, there has been a scam where people are encouraged to ask their digital assistants, like Siri or an iPhone, to dial 108. That number is India's version of 911 and Siri and other digital assistants will convert this to 911 in North America. 

Protecting 911

What can the province, emergency responders do to reduce the impact of nuisance calls or cyber attacks on 911?

It's going to take time and it's going to be expensive. Some states are spending $10 million to $15 million to upgrade to internet-based systems that can better detect nuisance calls or other attacks. 

Some are struggling to even keep these systems up to date. 

But protecting 911 isn't just a job for government. We all can play a roll. 

Keeping our devices out of the hands of kids is a good step. As is checking to see someone has already called into 911 when we come across an accident scene. This cuts down on unnecessary duplicate reports that tie up lines. 

Finally, patch your devices. Preventing your smartphone from being used as a way to attack emergency services or others is part of all of our responsibilities as good cyber citizens. 

About the Author

David Shipley

David Shipley is the CEO and Co-Founder of Beauceron Security Inc., a New Brunswick-based cybersecurity software firm with clients across North America. David is a certified information security manager and frequently writes and speaks about cybersecurity issues across North America. Over the summer he is exploring a variety of cybersecurity issues in a weekly column for CBC Radio New Brunswick.