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?