Now You Can Video Call 911

Don’t be camera shy

Key Takeaways

  • The new Carbyne software platform lets citizens chat with emergency dispatchers via video and text.
  • The increasing use of video by law enforcement agencies is causing privacy concerns.
  • A kayaker in Connecticut was recently rescued thanks to the Carbyne system.
CCTV view of burglar breaking in to home through window with crowbar
Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

A new software platform called Carbyne uses smartphones to connect 911 callers with emergency dispatchers via video and instant chat.

Carbyne allows dispatchers to pinpoint a caller’s exact location. The company says it can enhance safety by getting help faster, but some observers say that systems like Carbyne could infringe on privacy.

"With public access into private security systems, this inherently runs the risk of bringing local government authority into your home sphere," Annie Finn, safety and security consultant at surveillance company Swissguard USA, said in an email interview.

Do Police and Cameras Mix? 

The increasing use of law enforcement video surveillance is drawing scrutiny. In Jackson, Mississippi, plans to test a program that would allow police to monitor Ring security cameras have been criticized by privacy advocates.

"While the Ring is a valid piece of any home security system, allowing users to identify who is at their front door, or who is stealing their Amazon packages, it also allows police to build a massive surveillance network," Chris Hauk, consumer privacy expert at privacy blog Pixel Privacy, said in an email interview. "The Ring is a trojan horse when it comes to police surveillance."

"With public access into private security systems, this inherently runs the risk of bringing local government authority into your home sphere."

The Carbyne system is entirely voluntary, the company emphasizes. When a caller uses their smartphone to call 911, they receive a text message that asks for permission to get their precise location and access video from their smartphone camera.

"We enable emergency call centers to connect to callers in ways that allow them to fully immerse themselves into the incident and, therefore, dispatch more efficiently and faster," Carbyne founder and CEO Amir Elichai said in an email interview.

Privacy is a high priority, the company says. "All of the data that is passing through our gateway is stored on a highly secure government cloud, and the public agency or client are the sole owners of that data," explained Elichai. "To activate our platform, a caller must physically click ‘OK’ on a text-based message. Once the consent is received, a session will start."

Robbery Sparks Idea 

Elichai said the idea for Carbyne came to him after he was robbed at the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel.

"When I called 911, they asked me for my location," he said. "I answered that I wasn't sure because there was only sand around me and no street signs. It was clear that their inability to pinpoint my location was delaying the process. I was amazed that in today’s day and age, where every food delivery or rideshare app can pinpoint your location, 911 could not."

Man in a hoody staring at his phone at night
Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images

Because they are cloud-based, Carbyne’s systems can be installed within hours over existing emergency call systems, the company says. "Normally, it would take months of planning, multiple vendors, and significant resources to manually update 911 call centers from their older, legacy models," Elichai added.

Carbyne has already proved useful in the real world. The city of Stamford, Connecticut installed Carbyne in July 2020, and just hours after the installation, police received a call from a kayaker who was marooned on rocks in the harbor after accidentally flipping their kayak. The dispatcher used Carbyne to get the caller’s smartphone location data and a harbor patrol officer was dispatched and brought the kayaker ashore.

"To activate our platform, a caller must physically click ‘OK’ on a text-based message."

"New technology like Carbyne makes it easier for Stamford’s Public Safety staff to save lives," said Stamford Mayor David Martin.

The Carbyne system is also helping during the coronavirus pandemic. The city of New Orleans recently installed Carbyne, allowing paramedics to "remotely see patients," according to Tyrell Morris, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District. The goal is to use Carbyne to monitor the symptoms of quarantined residents and make sure they’re staying in their homes to limit exposure.

Remote monitoring technologies are gaining ground as the coronavirus pandemic winds on. Software solutions like Carbyne could save lives, but users have to be willing to give up some privacy in exchange.