Governments now sending emergency alerts to mobile phones

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by DAVID SCHECHTER / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on July 29, 2013 at 7:37 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 30 at 7:39 AM

Did you hear an alarming sound on your cell phone Sunday night?

It was dispatched after 10:30 in conjunction with an Amber Alert in West Texas, four-and-a-half hours away.

New technology and a federal law now let the government send these emergency alerts to your phone — even though you never asked for them.

On Facebook, some people said it was a startling and eerie experience, leading them to disable the function.

"We would appreciate if they did not opt out of the program," said Robert Hoever with National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who helps administer the program. "We rely on the public's participation," he said.

The government and wireless carriers have automatically enrolled phone users onto the system, something most of us knew nothing about. Privacy experts say consumers should be allowed to decide if they want to opt-in.

"It saves an individual from receiving their first alert not having any idea why they're receiving it, or who it's coming from," said Amie Stepanovich with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Or why it's popping up on their phone — possibly while they're laying in bed in a very personal space."

In the case of Amber Alerts, notifications may go out to huge portions of the state, if that's what investigators on the case believe is most helpful. However, the system has the capacity to alert people in very specific areas for things like weather emergencies.

In all, the system can handle three kinds of warnings: Amber Alerts; imminent threat alerts for things like natural disasters, earthquakes and tornadoes; and an alert issued by the president.

You cannot opt out of the presidential alert, but there is a setting to turn off the other two alerts.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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