Automated emergency texts: Help or hindrance?

A predawn Amber Alert message startled a lot of New Yorkers recently, raising questions about who controls our mobile devices.

By Bruce Kennedy Jul 18, 2013 2:11PM

Frustrated woman with mobile device © Jacqueline Veissid, Photodisc, Getty ImagesA lot of people in the metro New York area were shocked out of their beds on Wednesday, when they received a predawn Amber Alert text on their smartphones. The alert for an abducted child was safely resolved within hours, and law enforcement says a tip from someone who saw the alert broke the case.

But plenty of sleep-deprived people were upset following the alert -- the first time most smartphone users have come face-to-face with the new, federally authorized wireless emergency alert (WEA) system.

AT&T (T) announced the mandatory software upgrades to its subscribers earlier this month, while also noting that customers can turn off nearly all the alerts if they choose.

The system was set up by CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit organization that represents the wireless communications industry, along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CTIA says wireless providers representing 97% of subscribers are taking part in distributing the emergency alerts. While consumers are automatically enrolled to receive them, they won't be charged for the emergency texts. Participating wireless carriers were required to deploy WEA by April of last year.

The WEAs are meant to keep people with mobile devices up to speed on a few different types of alerts issued: those issued the U.S. president or a designee, "Imminent Threat Alerts" regarding man-made or natural disasters and Amber Alerts.

"WEA enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas." says the FCC website, which means people in Oregon won't receive information about an Amber Alert in Florida, and vice-versa.

Emergency alert text messages have been around for a while now and are used extensively by many organizations and academic institutions. There's also been a so-called reverse 911 system of emergency calls that was used with great effect recently during the Boston Marathon bomb attacks and aftermath.

But some observers are concerned the mandatory emergency texts could open the door to challenging privacy and surveillance issues.

"We've always insisted that these emergency alerts be opt-in and that there be very careful controls on them," Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told The New York Times, "because fundamentally the big issue here is who controls your device."

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