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September 5, 2013 permalink
Owners of cell phones are getting Amber alerts unless they take the trouble to opt out. With these alerts the social services system is forcing its attitudes on the general public. Many Amber alerts are about parents taking their own children.
With Auto Amber Alerts, We're Opted In By Default To A 'Little Brother' Surveillance Society
Amber Alerts have been turned on by default for most smartphones over the last year
Many Californians regretted bringing their phones to bed last night. After two children were kidnapped in San Diego, law enforcement sent an Amber alert out across the Golden State, resulting in a 11 p.m. scream from millions of iPhones and Droids (including Shaq’s). It was a wake-up in more than one way. The surveillance society has gone wireless.
Most Californians didn’t realize their phones were automatically opted in to the alerts — which include safety/weather threat notices and presidential alerts “during a national emergency“– as it was the first time the system was used in the state. The alerts are a public-private partnership tour de force: Requested by the president after 9/11 and mandated by Congress in 2006, the Wireless Emergency Alerts are overseen by the FCC and FEMA; major carriers from Verizon to AT&T had to get on board and mobile handset providers such as Apple and Android had to make changes to their operating systems to make the alert on by default, as well as giving carriers access to their APIs to send the messages to phones.
iPhone users can opt out by visiting 'Notifications' in their Settings
While you can opt out of the Amber alerts (if you’re willing to be thought of as a horrible person) and “alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life” (if you’re a risk-loving person), you can’t block alerts from the President. The alerts go out to anyone within a geographical area, broadcast from cell towers. It reminds me of a Dr. Who episode in which the government can directly beam messages into people’s minds thanks to an embedded chip in their brains, but in this case the chip is outside the body, in a handset. Carriers were required to have this up and running as of April 2012, but the alerts have only tended to get attention when setting off the phones of the mainstream media. In July, the New York Times wrote an explainer after New Yorkers got a 4 a.m. Amber alert.
Bob Hoever, a director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, says the Amber alerts have gone out on phones “probably more than 100 times” since the first one in December 2012 in Texas. They’ve led to the recovery of missing children twice: in Minnesota in February when a teenager spotted the car of someone who had abducted an 8-month-old after a home invasion and in Ohio in July when a theme-park-bound group got the alert and started trailing a van carrying an abducted 8-year-old. (That was shortly after Cleveland considered getting rid of them because “the loud alarms awoke [people] in fear.”)
Hoever said people used to opt in to Amber alerts for their phones by selecting zip codes for the areas they could monitor, which was “state of the art technology in May 2005.” Now the alerts simply go to anyone near a cell tower included in the alert zone. And because they are turned on by default, we are “nudged” into being part of a civilian police force, on the alert for child abductors.
“ Now no matter where you’re from, where you’re vacationing, you’ll be alerted if you’re in the area,” says Hoever. “It’s much more accurate, much more targeted, much more powerful.”
The alerts will reach a far bigger audience — assuming people don’t switch it off after too many late night and early morning awakenings — which Hoever thinks will help recover missing children faster. “The eyes and ears of the many outweigh the eyes and ears of the few,” says Hoever, who points out that Amber alerts have resulted in the rescue and recovery of 656 children since the system was first put in place in 1996.
However, the San Diego kidnapper remains on the loose as of Tuesday. I asked Hoever whether a blanket alert that turns hundreds of thousands of people into members of a massive neighborhood watch has resulted in more effective Amber alerts.
“I don’t know that it’s more effective, but the awareness is incredible now,” says Hoever. “If you look at Google Trends today, Amber Alerts beat out A-Rod.”