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Explainer: Why Did My Cell Phone Get An Amber Alert?

Stevanie Wazna-Blank | August 8, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

While coming home from a family dinner Monday night, I was jolted (along with most of California) when my phone blasted the first statewide Amber Alert via text message. The noise, which didn't sound like my normal ring tone, shook me up (and annoyed many), while the vague message left me wondering what the heck was going on.

As has been reported, law enforcement is looking for James Lee DiMaggio—the man suspected of kidnapping two children after murdering their mother and an unidentified child. Although the alleged crime took place in San Diego county, officials believe the man is trying to flee to either Canada or Texas. This sort of situation is what the Amber Alert was designed for. Yet while we're used to seeing these alerts blasted on electronic freeway signs and crawling across our TV screens, the cell phone blast represents a whole other kind of notification, and brings up a lot of questions. Such as:

When did Amber Alerts graduate to text messages?
How are they being sent to my phone?
Why didn't I know about this?
And why is this so damn creepy?

These Amber Alerts are issued by a law enforcement agency—in this case the California Highway Patrol. Once that happened, it put in motion a message to be sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which is a partnership between the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Congress established the WEA in 2006—during the Bush Administration—with the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act.

The system that spawned these alerts went online on April 7, 2012. As a national emergency alert system, WEA uses the GPS location of enabled devices (older phones, like the iPhone 3, don't work) in the emergency area and comes at no charge to the cell phone user. There are three kinds of alerts that can be sent through the WEA: Presidential Alerts (during a national emergency), Imminent Threat Alerts (man-made or natural disasters that may be life threatening), and Amber Alerts (alerts to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child). Of these three alerts, the "Presidential Alert" is the only one you can't opt out of. The other two are optional and the method of deactivating them varies according to your device and service provider. Since the deployment, East Coasters have received alerts during Superstorm Sandy and during the Boston Marathon bombings.

But back to the Amber Alert we received. Although the phone message alerts went into operation in January, 2013, Monday night's alert—which was requested by the California Highway Patrol—was the first statewide wireless Amber Alert in California. And as for the first with anything, it brought out some anxious feelings in those who received it, as well as in privacy watchdogs and rights organizations.

Peter Schreer of the First Amendment Coalition also received the Amber Alert on Monday night and was surprised by the disturbance, as well as unaware of these notifications. He works to advance free speech, and said "people are typically more concerned with giving up information as opposed to receiving information. However the alert was a disturbance, so in that sense it could be an invasion of privacy."

Dave Maass, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recognized that this was a legislative act that slipped past most. "Most people didn’t know their phone’s were capable of this,” said Maass. “We do encourage people who care about not getting woken up to things that aren’t relevant to them to turn the settings they can turn off. The Amber Alert was more of an alert that the government is getting involved in your personal lives. How much is the government engaging with private companies to figure out how to access you. Once you start down this road, where is someone going to draw the line? What else will they alert you about?”

Chris Conley, the Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, was also unaware of the policy when he received the alert. "It's a reminder that our phones and cell phone carriers have access to our locations at all time. The Amber Alert is well designed to disseminate information and not use the information gathered. It's not compiling a list of numbers. It's an example of how to build a good system to deliver services and not require information from people. Granted, it can be annoying, but it's incumbent on the government to use it wisely."

To follow this case, go to the CHP website.

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