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Determining VoIP Location – and Implications for Privacy

Updated on March 8, 2012

VoIP Location Information

To all external appearances, a VoIP phone system behaves just like a regular one. You pick up the phone, dial a number and talk without the user noticing any difference in the service. In fact, many telephone service providers make use of VoIP without telling the users – a somewhat dubious practice since they're reaping the benefits of lower costs without passing them on to the customers. But that aside a VoIP system while behaving outwardly the same, demonstrates several internal variances which make a huge difference to some of the third-party services integrating with the traditional PSTN phone system. One of these is location information.

Today, a telephone number remains tightly linked to a physical location. While there is basic number portability, there are several limitations one of which is that you cannot transfer numbers if you move outside your geographic zone. This has advantages as well as disadvantages. In the first place, tying an identity reference like a telephone number to a geographical area seems silly. It's like having to change your e-mail address whenever you move. On the other hand, a few services such as 911 are able to make use of this geographic information in order to deliver faster service when people were making the calls are unable to accurately convey where they are.

The flipside is that telephone numbers are easily traceable and those who're conscious about privacy might now find that VoIP offers them a better deal.

VoIP and 911
VoIP and 911

VoIP, 911 and Privacy

VoIP has always had a complicated relationship with 911 services. On the one hand, the greatest benefit of VoIP is that it allows for tremendous flexibility and permits customers to retain their telephone numbers no matter where in the world they are. This is ideal for travelers and even those who regularly switch telephones and even Internet connections. VoIP is network agnostic, carrier agnostic and device agnostic. All of which are inapplicable to the PSTN system.

But there have been cases in the past, when users of VoIP telephone services have been unable to obtain 911 services in time and have faced the consequences. We have seen earlier that the FCC was imposing regulations on VoIP providers to inform their customers about the deficiencies in 911 services and put in place a system whereby customers can update their addresses where they can be reachable should an emergency arise. This is one way of working around the limitations of 911, but of course not ideal.

Privacy conscious customers can take heart in the fact that their movements and location information are not easily traceable. Sure, the SIP provider themselves might be able to perform such tracking based on your IP information, but no one else. People you make calls to will not have access to that data.

Personally, I feel that the days where a person's location would be automatically determined using a telephone number are numbered. The benefits of VoIP are simply too much to give up and in any case, people can manually change their residential information if they ever need 911 services in the future. Business VoIP phones could conceivably even ask for this information when they're being set up and that integrate VoIP business phone services into the 911 loop.

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