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“Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.”     H. L. Mencken

August 14, 2013

The problem with mobile Amber Alerts

by Quincy

As you might have heard, many Californians were awakened by their phones last week for a late-night Amber Alert:

Russ went to bed early, setting “do not disturb” mode on his iPhone so no one could wake him up. His phone did wake him up, though, screeching and lighting up with an Amber Alert message about abducted children in a different part of the state. He asked Consumerist: how can he make these unwanted text messages stop?

What Russ got wasn’t a text message. It was part of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, or WEA. That’s a Federal Communications Commission program that zaps alerts about man-made or natural disasters, urgent messages from the President, and Amber Alerts directly to your phone.

Russ’ case was typical. That’s the problem. Amber alerts do not represent life-and-limb emergencies for 99.999% of those who receive them. Yet, thanks to the requirement of all WEA messages to be accompanied by the distinctive Emergency Broadcast System tone, they are treated as such.

Predictably, the noise and disruption caused by this late-night alert sent a lot of folks (myself included) scurrying to turn it off. California officials warn against this:

[T]he tones that come along with [Amber Alerts] are disruptive and annoying.

They’re supposed to be – to wake you up and make you pay attention and law enforcement officers statewide are urging cell users to stay in this potentially life-saving loop.

“That individual who may have deactivated may have provided that info on an individual that we’re looking for. Put yourself in those cases as well and put it into perspective,” Quintero said.

Speaker of the Assembly John Perez is so concerned about possible mass alert deactivations that he’s calling for a legislative hearing on the matter.

He also plans to arrange funding for a campaign of public service announcements emphasizing the importance of the alert system.

The public service announcements will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. They might get a few people to turn the alerts back on, but those same folks will end up turning them off again with the next Amber Alert. Personally, I’m not going to budge. As a musician and a software professional, I need to have absolute trust in the Vibrate Only and Do Not Disturb settings on my smartphone. The Amber Alert I received caused my phone to emit a noise on maximum volume despite my setting it to Vibrate Only.

After this happened, I carefully examined the Emergency Alert settings on my device and found that there is no way to leave these on without the sound. That lack of choice is unfortunate. I would have been perfectly happy receiving Amber Alerts that displayed like other push notifications. I know at least a dozen other people who feel the same way. Judging by the news, there are probably hundreds of thousands more in the state. Each and every one of us will never get another Amber Alert on our phone because our only choices were to tolerate the noisy disruptions or opt out entirely. Guess we’ll just have to get our Amber Alerts from those signs on the highways.


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