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Amber Alerts on your iPhone: Invasive, frustrating, necessary

Lex Friedman | Aug. 7, 2013
Folks on the west coast were surprised Monday night by a loud Amber Alert on their iPhones just before 11pm. Lex Friedman explains why Amber Alerts arrive, how to disable them and why you shouldn't.

Monday night, after I was asleep, my Twitter timeline exploded briefly. Folks out west were unhappy that their iPhones had blasted to life with noisy notifications—alerts that had apparently even ignored their Do Not Disturb settings.

Authorities had issued an Amber Alert after discovering a horrific crime scene and evidence of a potential kidnapping. iOS and other smartphone operating systems have supported Amber Alerts for a while, but they also require carrier support; some carriers only introduced support for those alerts within the past few months.

The immediate reaction to an unexpected notification on your iPhone at nearly 11 p.m. is understandably surprise, annoyance, and maybe even anger. Armed with a little more understanding of why the alerts exist, what they mean, and how you can control them, you'll likely find yourself less agitated the next time one rings out on your phone.

What is an Amber Alert?
Officially, it should be written AMBER Alert; it's a backronym for America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response. But the alerts are originally named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in Texas 17 years ago. The alert system is also known as CAE, for Child Abduction Emergency.

Amber Alerts are issued when police organizations determine that a child abduction has occurred; the alerts include the name and description of the victim, a description of the suspected abductor, and information about the suspect's vehicle when possible.

So, when the police feel that a child has been the victim of an abduction, they send out the Amber alert. Until recently, those alerts were distributed through radio (terrestrial, satellite, and Internet) and broadcast and cable television. Now, in addition, the alerts can get delivered via email, electronic traffic signs, digital billboards, Google, and Facebook. And since January 2013, Amber Alerts are sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system (also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System), which allows for the dissemination of emergency messages via cell phones.

That system allows the government to issue three kinds of alerts: Amber Alerts, alerts involving "imminent threats to safety of life," and alerts issued by the President of the United States.

Why you were surprised
The iPhone gained support for the WEA alerts with iOS 6. Carriers aren't required to support the system, but all the major ones do.

The alerts are rare. President Obama hasn't sent any nationwide texts yet, and Amber alerts are localized to the geographic region where the authorities think they can offer the most benefit.

The downside to the alerts is that they are generally accompanied by a startling alert sound, and that they arrive at unpredictable times. Monday's alert made headlines as west coasters were surprised. Just last month, New Yorkers received a similar shock when an Amber Alert sounded just before 4 a.m..


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