Civil Liberties

Extraordinary Intrusion: Amber Alert with Shrill Alarm Sound Hits Millions of People's Cell Phones Who Didn't Ask for It

Are surprise phone alarms that annoy more than they alert really the security overhaul this country needs?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/DeiMosz

A piercing alarm startled cellphone owners in the Western U.S.  who were in range late the night of August 5 and early the next morning, alerting them to a vague message about a suspected kidnapping. It read: "Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door."

As if the message wasn’t startling enough, it was accompanied by a 10-second shrill, screaming sound and static many users had never heard their phones make before.

News reports soon explained that the alert was a mobile AMBER alert—part of a new national emergency alert system that can be enacted by local state and county authorities—intended to inform people that James Lee DiMaggio, owner of the car, allegedly killed 44-year-old mother Christina Anderson and her 8-year-old son Ethan Anderson, then kidnapped her 16-year-old daughter Hannah Anderson.

But, the alert came out of the blue for most recipients and caused widespread confusion, particularly in California where no alert of this kind had been sent to cellphones before. According to the L.A. Times"everyone in California, Nevada, Washington state, Oregon and Idaho who owns a cellphone with the capacity to receive emergency messages got one," and it was the first of its kind in California.

Anderson was rescued on Thursday thanks to horseback riders who noticed the odd pair on a trail in Idaho, then recognized Anderson on TV news reports and notified the authorities.

Despite the fact that cellphones had nothing to do with Anderson's rescue, they will continue to receive AMBER alert notifications. 

AMBER Alerts are Automatic

The AMBER alert last week did not include information about where it came from or who had initiated it, and a vast majority of people alerted did not install or opt-in to the messaging feature. Their phones came with an alert feature automatically installed, thanks to a post-9/11 security law shift. At Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) request, a public alerts system was integrated, and the Warning Alert Response Network (WARN) Act  passed by Congress in 2006 made it so mobile devices would be used for emergency alerts.

AMBER—or America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response—alerts are a partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry to activate a bulletin for certain child-abduction cases. While they have been in effect since the beginning of the year, this week’s mass message was the first time cellphones were included.

According to CNN, "'Carriers representing 98 percent of all U.S. wireless subscribers are on the new program, and more than 200 models of phones support the alerts,' said Brian Josef, an assistant vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA, the wireless industry trade association."

According to the FCC’s website, the agency worked with FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service (NWS) to implement a now-mandatory  Emergency Alerts System (EAS) at the federal level, which went into effect on the first of this year. The widespread alert system requires:

“...broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service providers to provide the communications capability to the President to address the American public during a national emergency. The system may also be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information targeted to specific areas.”

Now, under the WARN Act, that system includes personal cellphones, in a program called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).

The San Francisco Chronicle published the article “Cell Phone AMBER alerts Inform and Startle” in which 23-year-old Oakland, California resident Amanda Martinez expressed her concerns with the program.

"It creeped me out," Martinez said. "I know it's for a good thing, but it scared me. How did they know I was in range?"

As the LA Times explained in an August 6 article titled “AMBER alert Q&A: Why it happens, how to turn it off”:

“The [WEA] is a new program ... replacing the previous ‘opt-in’ system. Cellphone owners now receive messages automatically, based on their proximity to the emergency, not based on their phone number. … All newer models of cellphones come wired to automatically receive the alerts, which means it’s more of an opt-out system. To opt-out of the emergency alerts, change your phone's settings for emergency alerts.”

Each phone’s emergency settings vary, and users must follow a list of steps not always provided by the carrier company—but often available via online forums— in order to opt-out.

Prior to the beginning of this year, people could receive AMBER alerts on their cell phones by signing up to participate in the wireless program—a system based on SMS texts. Under that system, people designated the areas where they wanted to receive emergency texts. The new system makes it so that anyone who owns a capable mobile device, regardless of the carrier, will automatically receive AMBER alerts as well as "National Weather Service" alerts, “Imminent Threat” alerts, and “Presidential alerts.”

The AMBER alerts, National Weather Services Alerts, and Imminent Threat Alerts can be disabled, however the Presidential alerts cannot.

Unlike the previous system, the new system sends alerts for the entire area in which cellphones are currently located. A specified wireless carrier channel called Cell Broadcast sends out WEA alerts, transmitted all mobile devices within range of the cell towers in the affected area.

The system does not require specific mobile numbers, and cannot become congested like SMS text messages and voice messages. The alert is broadcast to all capable nearby phones simultaneously.

The L.A. Times notes that while the system allows people to opt out of the alerts, “given that no one had received such a message before, it’s doubtful that anyone would have thought to do so before” the August 5 alert.  

Which Abductions are AMBER-Worthy?

How is it determined which abductions merit an AMBER alert? The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) website says the alerts are issued only in the “most serious” child abduction cases, but who determines which missing child case is most serious? Local law enforcement.

Bob Hoever, the director of special programs for the NCMEC says in order for an AMBER alert to be issued, several criteria have to be met, determined on a "grassroots" level by each state. The local authorities are supposed to follow the state criteria to determine which cases are mobile alert-worthy.

“AMBER alerts are issued only for the most dangerous child abductions, when it’s a child abduction, and the child is facing grave danger, and there’s enough descriptive information to believe an AMBER alert will help rescue that child or save that child’s life,” he says. “Obviously this case is one.”

Cellphone AMBER alerts assisted in the location and safe recovery of an abducted  8-month-old in Minnesota this February.

Hoever is a vocal proponent of the program and says it’s vital that they be included in cellphones on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis.

“Absolutely, it’s critically important it be sent to them in that manner,” he says, noting concerns that people might otherwise have a difficult time implementing the program into their phones. “Once people realize what it is I think you’re going to find people are really going to appreciate this program and technology.”

However, a sea of unanswered questions about this new security program remains. Shouldn’t cellphone users, who download apps on a daily basis, be trusted to choose to opt-in to an alerts system, rather than required to opt-out? Are local authorities capable of determining AMBER-worthiness? Also, why did the first cellphone alert go out for a white teen when an AMBER alert was issued in Oakland, California for a missing black infant three weeks prior on July 15?

Are child abductions the high priority crime in today’s society? And, are startling, surprise phone alarms that annoy more than they alert really  the security overhaul this country needs? Probably not.

April M. Short previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort