Amber Alerts and other warnings delivered by the Wireless Emergency Alerts system can get out of hand, as the recent case in California shows.
Like most people, I have a smartphone. I enjoy it. It brightens my day and enhances my life both personally and professionally. Plus, hey, distractions!
Still, there are times when we can end up regretting having them. There's been a bit of a kerfuffle lately about push notifications for government safety and other alerts coming through phones. Usually taking the name “Amber Alerts” from the missing child notifications — but actually called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) — the system lets government organizations — from the White House to the local level — send alerts about emergencies or imminent threats to WEA-capable smartphones. The alerts are free, and wireless carriers participate voluntarily — though not all do. And WEA is opt-out, although emergency alerts issued by the president can’t be blocked. Here in South Carolina — I live in Charleston — the most frequent cause of my phone chirping on its own is a warning about possible torrential rains and flooding. Forgive me, but warning me about heavy rains in South Carolina is like warning someone from Washington, D.C., about presidential motorcades. Maybe useful, but hardly critical.
The system is a complement to Emergency Alert System. The government, through the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Emergency Management Agency, rolled out the new wireless system in April 2012. The idea is to send alerts to targeted geographic areas, so people in South Carolina get warnings about hurricanes, and those in Wyoming get advanced word on blizzards, and so on.
The recent murder-and-abduction case in San Diego showed the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Authorities sent alerts the entire length of the state and beyond (a GCN contributor in Washington state got one). Since the abductor was eventually caught in Idaho, and the girl he kidnapped was rescued, it would seem that wide net was called for. But what would someone in San Francisco — or San Diego, for the matter — have made of this message, sent without context up and down the West Coast: “Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert. UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.
Those alerts, which can arrive at any time day or night, are not like regular text message alerts either, so you won't hear that Funky Chicken Dance you paid an extra 99 cents to procure. They literally scream with tones that mimic the television emergency alert tones, and they can come in at all hours because many people don’t ever shut their phones down, even while they are charging up.
Look, I'm not going to argue against the utility of using smartphones in this way, because alerts can be valuable. Universities have set up campus-wide alert systems that have proved effective, as the VT Alert system did at Virginia Tech University in December 2011.
But reaching out to me with an alert even when my phone is silenced to warn me about something that is of no concern — or even local to me — is something that should require finesse. You know it's only a matter of time until some James Bond gets an Amber Alert that tips off the bad guys when he's skulking around quietly. At least make it opt-in as opposed to the current opt-out model. Most users won't even know they're a part of the network until their phone suddenly surprises them by screeching to life, which is the way many people in California learned about the program.
Meanwhile, agencies might want to be a little more circumspect about issuing alerts. If they cause too much aggravation, more and more people will opt out, and then what good will they do?