J. D. Heyes
August 9, 2013
There will be some who think it’s a great idea and an improvement to public safety (the old “it’s for your own good” argument), but it is something that has sinister implications: Sending out “alerts” over your cell phone, which is a technique critics say is a huge privacy issue, could also be used to spread government propaganda.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that California residents were stunned and angered by a government-sponsored “Amber Alert” sent out to every cell phone in the state.
According to the paper:
[Aug. 5] marked the first time in California that officials notified the public of a statewide Amber Alert through their cellphones, a California Highway Patrol official said. It differed from phone to phone, but sometime between late [Aug. 5] and early [Aug. 6] many mobile phones across Southern California received an Amber Alert related to two missing children in San Diego.
The alert was sent to inform Californians that authorities were on the lookout for James Lee DiMaggio, who is suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children: Hannah Anderson, 16; and Ethan Anderson, 8.
Authorities found Christina’s body the night of Aug. 4 “in the burning rubble of a house in the rural community of Boulevard in eastern San Diego County,” the Times reported, citing authorities. Both children were most likely abducted around 5 p.m. Aug. 3, police said.
Coming soon: More mobile invasions of your privacy
While state police obviously thought sending the alert to residents’ cell phones – without their prior knowledge or permission – was a good idea, many Californians begged to differ.
Per the Times:
Residents across California were startled overnight by cellphones that came to life in screeches and buzzes, awaking some and unsettling others with the state’s first Amber Alert via text message.
Californians are no strangers to Amber Alerts, which are issued for critical child abductions. But for the first time Monday night, residents across the Southland experienced an Amber Alert issued via text message to their cellphones — and got the full complement of a 10-second spurt of high-pitched noise and buzzing.
According to the paper, most newer cell phones are set up to receive the alerts automatically. Though the messages are free, cell phone owners must contact their service provider to manually opt-out of the program.
“For those who didn’t have their phone on silent or vibrate, it brought a high-pitched beeping and buzzing that, overnight [Aug. 5] and into early [the next] morning, caught many residents off guard,” the Times reported.
“Come on. I’m driving to work enjoying MY music on my iPhone when in comes an amber alert on the phone with all its ugly buzzing noises,” one Californian tweeted.
“Am I the only one that got an amber alert on my phone? 0.0 screwed me up while I was driving…” tweeted another.
What’s wrong with asking first?
Some analysts and opinion writers have defended the cell phone-delivered alerts, citing the seriousness of the alleged crime and the fact that two children have been kidnapped. And they blasted those in the Twitterverse who poked fun at the alert and reacted to it.
“Yes, it might have helped if the message had been less cryptic. But now that we’ve all seen one, we should be able to recognize what such alerts are trying to tell us. If you’re out and about, look for a car matching the description and let the police know immediately if you see it. If not, recognize that the alert wasn’t meant for you and resume whatever you were doing, thankful that your family wasn’t the one that needed help,” wrote Jon Healy in the L.A. Times.
Here’s the thing: Just because something appears innocuous and helpful doesn’t make it so. The real question isn’t why some people reacted the way they did – that much is understandable, given the fact that the alert caught them completely off guard. Rather, it is why authorities decided on their own to just start sending the alerts without asking cell phone users whether it would be okay to invade their phones.
Most people are sympathetic to the situation highlighted in this particular case – a dead mother and two kidnapped children. But there is something to be said about the uniquely American principle of governing “with the consent of the governed.”
This article was posted: Friday, August 9, 2013 at 5:24 am