Don’t panic! Emergency text alerts are coming to your phone

Don’t panic! Emergency text alerts are coming to your phone
Could a text message save your life in an emergency? From this summer, the UK Government will finally catch up with other countries and start sending out alerts to all mobile phones in the event of major accidents and disasters – why has it taken so long to implement this and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

Just as we recently wrote about how telecommunications are a vital yet vulnerable service in the event of civil unrest and war, they can be just as important in the event of emergencies and natural disasters.

The UK Government will, later this year, launch a formal system for sending out emergency alerts to all phones in a given region, or the entire country, in the event of major incidents or extreme weather that may pose a risk to life.

The UK’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat first mulled the idea back in 2013, arguing that “In the event of an emergency, it is vital that information is given to the public as quickly as possible so that they can take the necessary action to keep themselves and their families safe”. The public were in agreement, with 85% of survey respondents agreeing it was a good idea. So, what has taken so long?

This scheme languished for years until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the government was criticised for not following its own guidance and already having a robust emergency alert system in place. Instead, they were forced to collaborate with the four major MNOs to send out SMS warnings in batches, so as not to overwhelm the networks.

After trials last summer, the new service will finally come into effect later this year. Using a method called Cell Broadcast, when activated, all phones and connected tablets in a designated area – provided they’re running a minimum of iOS 14.5 or Android 11 and are at least 4G-enabled – will read out a text-to-speech warning, which will be followed by a ten-second siren, even if set to silent.

Cell Broadcast works even at times when the network is congested, and requires users to acknowledge the message before they can continue using their device, although it does not notify the authorities whether or not a message was actually acknowledged.

O2 customers (plus users of the Giffgaff, Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile MVNOs) had a taste of the service in May last year, when many were subjected to an unannounced test of the system:
Cell Broadcast is already in use in a number of places, including the EU, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Chile, the Philippines, and the United States – where it’s also used to broadcast AMBER alerts for abducted children, and Presidential Alerts sent directly from the White House. However, these can, with the exception of Presidential Alerts, be switched off.
One such bone-chilling alert came in January 2018, when the United States Emergency Alert System accidentally sent out a false alert to residents of Hawaii, warning of an incoming ballistic missile and urging users to “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.”

A later investigation by the FCC found that “the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert”.

Apt, then, that the rollout of the UK’s system comes at a time of international tension, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As noted by the i newspaper in hysterical fashion, the UK has had no early warning system in place to alert the public of nuclear attack since its Cold War-era infrastructure was wound down, and this would likely be another job for the new alerts.

The approach represents a marked shift from previous attempts to manage telecommunications during emergencies, which focused on keeping people off their phones and giving networks some breathing room.

From the 1950s until 2017, the UK’s Government Telephone Preference Scheme (not to be confused with the “Do Not Call” register, the Telephone Preference Service) ensured that, in the event of an emergency, only the most important phone calls would connect. This was for matters of national security – the country’s air raid siren system being controlled via telephone and its operators receiving their orders through the same lines used by the speaking clock.

After these sirens were dismantled in the early 1990s, some remained in areas prone to flooding, though these too are now increasingly being replaced by an SMS-based service. Similarly, sirens erected surrounding Broadmoor Hospital to alert the public of escapees have been branded “outdated”, with Twitter seen as a more effective means.

In the 1990s came the mobile counterpart to the GTPS, Access Overload Control (ACCOLC), which prioritised access to the UK’s mobile networks for designated VIPs in the event of any incident overwhelming networks with a surge in calls.

ACCOLC was most notably activated in the aftermath of the 7/7 terror attacks in London, when the number of calls increased by 1,000%. This ensured police communications remained unhindered around Aldgate station for the time it was active, but hampered the work of the ambulance and fire brigade, whose responders relied on mobile phones to communicate with their respective control rooms – not to mention that the decision prevented many people from contacting their loved ones to ensure they were safe.

The Report of the 7 July Review Committee found ACCOLC was nearly not used, as it was “not clear that the right personnel would be carrying ACCOLC-enabled telephones”. When activated, the decision was found to have been made “outside the command and control structure” of the Metropolitan Police’s Gold Coordinating Group, which holds sole authority over the use of ACCOLC.

In 2009, ACCOLC was superseded by the Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme (MTPAS). This system pre-assigns every SIM card an access code, from 0-14 – most users are designated 0-9, while first responders are designated 12-14. In the event of an emergency, MPTAS will be activated and block connections from SIMs without sufficient access privileges, except for calls to 999.

With improvements in network bandwidth, network shutdowns are no longer as frequent; MTPAS was not activated during the 2011 London riots – luckily, as the failure of the police’s digital Airwave radio, deployed post-7/7, caused many officers to resort to using their personal devices.

Clearly, the importance of connectivity in an emergency takes precedence over severing access. Now, in some cases, your phone may be able to do even more than just provide alerts; thanks to a partnership between Google and ShakeAlert, Android phones in California can share gyroscopic/seismic data to provide real-time information for measuring earthquakes in California, alerting users in turn of danger – that is, if the shaking hadn’t already alerted them.

Though such an alert system no doubt has potentially life-saving utility, these cases prove that it’s not without its flaws; as with many new phone-based initiatives, the bias towards modern devices will inevitably leave some users out in the cold.

Furthermore, those who do receive the potentially life-saving information may not actually want it – the US Government was taken to court over the Presidential Alerts system for “violat[ing] the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution”, while South Korea’s alert system was criticised for revealing too much personal data on citizens infected with COVID.

Who does responsibility for activations fall to? False alarms aside, the overuse of such a system by various government agencies could create a boy-who-cried-wolf situation, leading some to disregard a real emergency or cause undue distress. An alert sent to Hong Kong residents earlier this month, simply notifying that Queen Elizabeth Hospital had been designated to receive COVID-19 patients, was deemed overzealous by residents.

Though undoubtedly a good idea in principle, the powers that be must exercise caution and best practice with such an alert system, ensuring they trigger alarms, not alarmism.

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