Police in the UK are dealing with a "record number" of fake calls to 999, the UK's emergency number, and Android appears to be responsible. According to the BBC, Android 12 adds a feature for easier access to emergency services: just press the power button five times and your phone will call emergency services for you. Obviously, it's pretty easy to accidentally do this if you have your phone in your pocket or the power button doesn't work, resulting in a stream of completely silent emergency calls.
Earlier this month, the National Police Headquarters tweeted: “All emergency services across the country are currently receiving a record 999 calls. There are several reasons for this, but we believe the Android smartphone update will have a significant impact." It says one department "received 169,999 silent calls between 00:00 and 19:00 BST on Sunday alone". In response recent complaints, Google said it is working with Android OEMs on a solution.
Interestingly, Android 12 - and this simple emergency call feature - arrived a year and a half ago. Thanks to Android's unique (and particularly bad) deployment method, this feature is only now becoming a national problem for enough people. Google Pixel devices get new Android updates immediately, but it can take months or years for everyone to get the new version of Android because your device manufacturer has to make new versions for everyone. When it appeared on Pixel devices in 2021, some people immediately flagged it as a problem, with one post on Reddit calling it "dangerous." Since then, there has been a steady stream of posts warning people about itGoogle currently recommends disabling this feature until a fix is released Easy to say, hard to do. Many Android manufacturers prefer to encrypt settings, which makes online tutorials difficult. So it is best to search for "Emergency SOS" in system settings. On Samsung and Pixel phones, System Settings should have a top-level Security and Emergency page that will take you to Emergency SOS settings. Although Samsung has a settings page for this feature, some users have reported that the page doesn't actually have an "off" switch. Some versions of the Galaxy S23 and S22 allow you to control things like playing SOS, an emergency alert tone, but you can't disable the power button shortcut.
As with all Android, Google told the BBC that Google is the developer, but manufacturers decide how and when the emergency call feature will work. The company says: “To help these manufacturers prevent accidental emergency calls on their devices, Android provides additional tips and resources. We hope that device manufacturers will provide users with updates that will fix this problem soon. Users who continue to experience this." The problem is expected to disable the emergency call service for the next few days. While it may take months or years for Android patches to reach the general public, Google's statement that it will "set in a few days.. .getting optimistic?
This isn't the first time available emergency call features have put pressure on local call centers The Apple Watch was released with a feature to automatically call 911 when the watch detects too much G-force, which has been associated with fake 911 calls to 911 from people who "flood" skiing or roller coasters in the United States. When Google released a similar feature on the Pixel Watch earlier this year, the company talked about the work it was doing to block unwanted calls, but the feature apparently wasn't tested on Android phones. It's still better than getting into an accident every time you call 911.