Alert, Alert!

Monday night around 11pm my cell phone started making a horrible screeching siren sound, not entirely unlike the famous TV and radio emergency broadcast system sound. Combined with the vibration buzz, which was amplified by the wooden shelf the phone was sitting on, it made quite a racket.

I was reading in bed and it scared the heck out of me–and sent the three cats who had been snoozing on the bed fleeing for shelter.

It took me a minute or so to figure out what was going on. It turned out to be an Amber Alert. The California Highway Patrol issued the alert in connection with a possible murder/kidnapping in San Diego and made it statewide due to concerns that the suspect might be trying to drive cross-state on his way to Texas or Canada.

It turns out that most cell phones made in the past couple of years come pre-configured to receive emergency alerts, and several states have been using them since April 2012. California has approved their use for Amber Alerts as of the beginning of 2013; this is the first time any alert has been issued in California.  Yep, the government is in your cell phones in ways other than just monitoring who you talk to.

There’s been very little publicity about this phone “feature”. The online screaming suggests that I’m far from the only person who didn’t know about it. Most of the complaints seem to fall into two categories: “Why are you bugging me with this?” and “Why are you bugging me with this in the middle of the night?” Official responses are playing the “Think of the children” card. The response from Bob Hoever, director of special programs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is absolutely typical: “I can appreciate and feel bad that people were annoyed and disturbed by the alert, but this is how we save children.”

Such responses miss a lot of the point. The cell phone alert system replaces an older web-based system that allowed users to opt-in to the system. This system is opt-out: you will receive the alerts unless you explicitly turn them off. And you will receive the alerts whenever police decide to send one, regardless of the time of day or night. (Yes, most phones allow you to block notifications, but how many people don’t set up those blocks, or can’t because they have to be available for work or personal emergencies?) Hundreds of thousands of people received Monday night’s alert. Thousands more will be receiving further alerts. An Amber Alert sent at 4am in New York led an unknown, but probably high, number of people to opt out. Monday’s 11pm alert will likely have a similar effect in California. A few more such high-profile events would have a serious negative effect on the utility of the program.

I started looking into how to opt-out. On my phone, it’s actually simple once you know the choice is there. Launch the messaging app, go into its settings, and scroll to the “Emergency message settings”. Other Android phones should be similar; you iPhone users are on your own (but feel free to post instructions in a comment). According to the fount of all knowledge, while the messages appear on your phone like a standard SMS, they’re actually sent over a separate system that gives them priority over regular text messages and voice calls, which makes sense given the original intent to use them for warnings of dangerous weather, terrorist actions, or other events being managed by government Emergency Operations Centers.

There are actually five different message types that can be sent via the “Commercial Mobile Alert System” (also known as “Wireless Emergency Alerts” and “Personal Localized Alerting Network”): Presidential, Extreme, Severe, Amber, and Test. By law, Presidential alerts cannot be disabled. The others can be turned off. Whether you do so is, of course, your own decision.

I’m not arguing that Amber Alerts are not worthwhile or a valuable resource. Hoever notes that 656 children have been rescued specifically because of Amber Alerts. On the other hand, that’s 656 children in the 13 years since the Amber Alert program began in 1996. Is the benefit really so great that it needs to be an opt-out program affecting every cell-phone user in the country?

6 thoughts on “Alert, Alert!

  1. Someone on Facebook put it perfectly: “What the hell do you expect me to do? Get out of bed at 3am and go drive around in my pajamas, looking for the missing person?” It’s just more ‘security theater”: “This is to demonstrate that we are doing something, and therefore deserve to keep our well-funded jobs. If you don’t like it, we’ll make it even more annoying until you shut up, you uncompassionate, child-hating bastard!” Sounds like another good reason to not get a smart phone. I’ll add it to the long list.

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    • Don’t count on sticking with not-so-smart phones being enough to keep you clear of these alerts. Apparently the system is similar enough to SMS that many dumb phones can handle it too. If you have an old phone and turn down any software updates that the carrier tries to push to it, you may be OK, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ll be stuck the next time you buy a new phone, regardless of its intelligence.

      Again, I’m not against the technology in general. I can see how it would be useful for location-specific emergencies. It was used to send targeted “shelter in place” warnings during the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt, for example.

      But making it opt-out, not advertising that it’s there, and using it at inconvenient hours for causes that not everyone cares about, is a recipe for a massive backlash that makes it the next thing to useless.

      Shall we start an official Uncompassionate Child-Hating Bastards Club? :-j

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  2. I imagine an alert going out in a theater where inevitably some phones will not be turned out, and the audience then being subjected to a multistereophonic alert noise. Which might set off a riot, thereby triggering another alert. And if any of the alert types can override a mute mode, the sound and reaction to it could be truly spectacular.
    Either I’m dumber than my smartphone, or I do not have that app. If the latter, thank you, Motorola.

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    • Reading my mind again? I just scheduled tomorrow’s post with some further thoughts a couple of minutes ago. Apparently the alerts ignore your mute settings.

      And I’d be willing to be that you do have that app. Almost every phone manufactured after April 2012 has the capability, and all of the major carriers have signed on to deliver the alerts.

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