Skip to content
Naked Security Naked Security

Google: 30% of wireless calls to 911 emergency services are butt dials

Butt dials can be awkward, but there are serious consequences too. As researchers from Google found recently, up to 30% of wireless calls to 911 in San Francisco are accidental butt dial calls.


The “pocket dial” or “butt dial” happens to a lot of us.

By constantly checking our phones dozens of times a day, it’s bound to happen.

But it’s not just embarrassing or awkward. Butt dialing can have some serious consequences, too.

We’ve heard at least a few stories of crooks accidentally butt dialing 911 and incriminating themselves in conversations overheard by the dispatcher.

(Be warned: US courts have ruled that conversations overheard in butt dial calls are not private, and are admissible in court.)

Here’s something else: now we’re learning that butt dials might be putting a big strain on the emergency call system.

As researchers from Google found recently, up to 30% of calls from wireless phones to 911 in San Francisco are accidental butt dial calls.

All these butt dials are contributing to a big jump in 911 calls handled by dispatchers in San Francisco – up 28% since 2011 – burdening the system and taking up a lot of dispatchers’ time.

Dispatchers have to call numbers back to determine if these calls were accidental, or from someone who really needs help, and the average call back for accidental wireless calls takes over a minute.

About 80% of dispatchers surveyed by Google said it’s a time consuming aspect of their workflow, and 40% said butt dialing is their job’s biggest pain in the, er, butt.

A lot of wireline calls are accidental too – 37% in Google’s study – but these calls are easier to weed out because they mainly come from pay phones or building switchboards, leaving a smaller percentage of accidental calls dispatchers have to follow up with a call back.

Google’s research focused on a narrow sample – because of inconsistencies in the way 911 dispatchers log accidental calls, the data analysis for this study was limited to 197 wireless calls and 79 wireline calls.

Yet Google’s findings are backed up by Michael O’Reilly, a commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

After visits to 911 call centers in New York City and Anchorage, Alaska in 2014, O’Reilly said the anecdotal evidence indicates that as many as 50% of wireless 911 calls are butt dials.

O’Reilly admitted that the true scale of the problem is unknown, but accidental calls to 911 are a “huge waste of resources,” raise the cost of services, and could lead to delays in responding to legitimate 911 calls.

Google’s researchers recommend that dispatch centers can reduce time wasted on butt dials by automating the call back process, either by automating the voicemail message left by the dispatcher or sending an automated text.

FCC Commissioner O’Reilly suggested penalizing repeat butt dialers with some type of fee.

Most smartphones have an emergency services call button available on the lock screen, so it’s still possible to butt dial even if you have a passcode on your phone.

However, a passcode can protect your phone from other risks, such as accidentally calling anyone else or somebody picking up your phone and using it when you’re not looking.

So, if you haven’t already, set up a passcode and get in the habit of locking your phone before putting it back in your pocket.

Yes, you’ll have to use your passcode, pattern or fingerprint any time you want to check your phone.

But your security will be better for it.


Free download (no registration, no time-limit)...

Image of 911 on phone courtesy of


A bit hard to believe as I would like to meet the butt that can dial 911, can it dial 007 as well? :)


You didn’t read the story did you? Many phones have “Dial Emergency” as an option on the lock screen and it only takes one or two taps.


This was surprising to me when I got a smart phone. As someone who makes UI design choices daily, it seems like an obvious consequence that we’d see an increase in accidental emergency calls by making emergency dialing (overly) accessible. Are mobile phone’s required to make this access so accessible? If so, it would make sense that the bill also mandates funding for the result of its requirement.


The idea behind having the phone locked, and able to make 911 calls is so that if you have a heart attack and your phone is located on you and is locked a bystander could call 911 for you. It really boils down to common sense and logical reasoning why this is the way it is. There is no requirement to have 911 and emergency calling available via lock screen. It would be stupid and illogical for them to require it.


On my iphone 6+, I would have to accidently wake the phone up (power or home button), accidently slide the lockscreen page over from the default over the passcode screen, accidently press the fairly small “Emergency” button on the bottom corner of the phone, and even after that I’d still have to, in order, accidently hit 9, 1, 1, and then the green call button… Never mind the fact its fairly hard to manipulate a touch screen without direct skin contact, and also never mind the fact that most cell phones shut back down when turned on, if not unlocked within 10-30 seconds…

I’m not saying but dialing doesn’t happen, but it would be essentially impossible to happen on my phone, anyways. I would have thought the main culprit would have been those older or open/exposed type phones (a la blackberry).


Who butt dials anymore? Ever hear of locking their phones and turning off lockscreen access to dialing like SO many security pointers have said to do over the last few years? There are too many people using smart phones that are not smart enough to own them in my opinion. Just look at how many people who drive modern new cars that have that phone glued to their ears in traffic when MOST new cars offer built-in Bluetooth capability.


The majority of people use their devices in the default mode, whether that be the 12:00 flasher crowd (referring to devices around the home that continually flash 12:00) or people using their mobile phones in the default manner.

I’d say that in this situation, the onus is a bit on Apple and Google: have phone locking be the default, with lockscreen dialing being off by default. Make the emergency call button be a two-step press, then swipe all the way up the screen to dial, or something else that doesn’t happen as easily in the pocket.

These changes would stop 90% of the butt dials without requiring phone owners to take “extra” steps. And if someone turns off their password or enables lockscreen dialing, well, the FCC (or local equivalent) can fine them. After all, they made an explicit choice.


As noted in the article:

“Most smartphones have an emergency services call button available on the lock screen, so it’s still possible to butt dial even if you have a passcode on your phone.”

So even people who do the right thing and set up their phones securely have this problem. What smartphone do you have that lets you disable the emergency dialer?


R E A L L Y ?? C’mon ya’ll,you are wasting your time on this question as its plainly a damned if you do ,damned if you don’t situation , unlocked and you have no security from just anyone accessing your phone , a two step process is not logical for someone in a heart attack or mere seconds/minutes to get help or die scenario. ..
Better use of your brain power to ponder the taco bell question people.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to get the latest updates in your inbox.
Which categories are you interested in?
You’re now subscribed!