Amber Alerts on your iPhone: Invasive, frustrating, necessary

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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..

What you should do

The biggest risk is that iPhone owners (and owners of other smartphones with WEA support) will disable Amber Alerts because of the annoyance factor. And yes, you can disable the alerts if you don’t want to see (and hear) them: Go to the Settings app, choose Notifications, and scroll all the way down.

Of course, if more people turn them off, Amber Alerts unsurprisingly become less effective. That 4 a.m. Amber Alert in New York led to a tip that led to the capture of the alleged abductor.

It’s understandable that the government would want these emergency alerts to be loud and invasive. But given that we’re allowed to turn the messages off, perhaps the government and companies like Apple should work to find options to make the alerts more palatable, too. A simple option to use a standard beep instead of a siren sound, or the ability for the alerts to arrive quietly when Do Not Disturb is enabled, could make leaving those alerts turned on far easier for typical iPhone owners, without sacrificing the potential impact the alerts can have.

It also doesn’t help that the government’s messages via the WEA system are more limited than tweets: They get 90 characters to craft their messages, not enough to include all the relevant details available in an Amber Alert. That’s because the system doesn’t use the standard SMS approach; it’s a special system that’s not subject to delays or congestion from other messages.

Those 90 characters result in messages as tightly compressed as a classified ad, and with no link to further information; you’re meant to seek out additional details on your own.

It’s clear that the system could improve. But you might decide to leave Amber Alerts enabled on your device even before that improvement comes, even if it never does. The Find My iPhone feature doesn’t respect your phone’s Do Not Disturb setting, either. If it’s good enough for your phone, it’s good enough for someone else’s kid.

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