Discuss: Amber, who?

Aug 9, 2013

Earlier this week, California sent out a statewide Amber Alert in the hopes of finding a young girl kidnapped by a man who murdered her mother and little brother.  The alert came late at night, waking and startling a number of area residents who weren’t too keen on this new technology.

Search the Internet and you’ll find no shortage of people upset about Amber Alert.  Some even described the alert as “absolutely terrifying.”  (Who knew cell phones made noise?)

You’ll also find people who were shocked to discover that the gov’t had the ability to track and contact them via text message.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as “shocking” information in a post-Snowden era.

Given the public outrage, the Interwebs are also teeming with articles teaching you how to turn off this feature.  Even news articles extolling the virtues of the Amber Alert are more than happy to tell you how to silence it.  And the state of California (which has more pressing matters to deal with like this or this) decided to create an opt-out for those poor souls who had their lives cruelly interrupted and would like to prevent the scourge of the alert in the future.

The Amber Alert system was created to recover kidnapped children by telling people in the area to be on the lookout for a particular vehicle or person.  It has been instrumental in the recovery of hundreds of children.  And given that Americans are eschewing television and radio for the siren’s song of their smartphones, broadcasting Amber Alerts via text message is critical to future success, not to mention common sense.

Also, how many of the very people griping about how they were inconvenienced by the 10:54PM alert jumped on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram at 10:56PM to share their upset with the world?  Oh, so that law enforcement bulletin was unnecessary, but your expletive-laced status update was a revelation that simply could not wait until morning?

I’m not sure why so many intelligent, decent people are weighing the possibility of protecting a child from harm against a momentary inconvenience and coming up on the wrong side of that calculus, but I find the whole situation frustrating and disheartening.

What does it say about the strength and health of our society when we treat public safety like a consumer product and convince a government entity to make a critical law enforcement/public safety tool less effective because we don’t want to be bothered?

And before you rush to disable the public announcement function on your phone, remember that Amber Alerts have rescued 656 children.  And this alert, which is now being broadcast in four states, might rescue a young girl from a man who murdered her family and has probably harmed her.

Public alerts are also how you find out about natural disasters and other community impacting events.  So if you’re not worried about the safety of a child you’ve never met, or you doubt you’ll be in a position to help him/her, think about the fact that you might want to know they next time there’s a flash flood or a terrorist attack.  (How do you think all those Bostonians knew to stay indoors during the hunt for the Marathon bombers?)

If this young girl were my daughter or my sister or my friend, I would want every set of eyes looking for her.  And the potential that a late night alert could bring a child safely home is way more important to me than the five minutes of sleep I would lose, seven minutes if I decide to Instagram a screen capture of the alert.

So what do you think: Would you turn off the Amber Alert system?  Or do you think it’s worth it?


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  1. I agree. It appears they’ve had over 150 tips from this one Amber Alert; this is crucial and I hope they find him and her in time.

    • GoGoGo says:

      Hey FYI all just spotted this update while reading the news:

      Kidnapping and murder suspect James DiMaggio, sought in a national manhunt, may be armed with improvised explosives or may have rigged his car with them, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said Thursday.

      “Working on the theory that he abandoned the car, we think there is a possibility that the car might be rigged,” Caldwell said. “So we want to put out there *for civilian safety, for officer safety, if you see the car, do not approach it but call law enforcement.”*


  2. BM says:

    I definitely agree that many of the comments that were made were awful — reflecting a really messed up priority system, but some critics have had a point: they’re asking questions about whether or not the system actually works, especially when the alert (particularly the one sent out by text) is vague and difficult to understand for someone not familiar with the system.

    I thought this article summed up the opposition point quite well: https://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/08/08/amber_alert_california_let_s_get_rid_of_the_amber_alert_system.html

    • Belle says:

      I’m all for improving the system. And that’s completely valid. I’m just sick of being told that this is an invasion of ppl’s privacy. These are government funded phone lines, just like the television airwaves, a bit of annoyance for the public good is par for the course.

  3. Lynn says:

    Good lord, what a bunch of self-centered asshats. A minute or two of your precious sleep in exchange for the life of a child? Who wouldn’t willingly give that?

  4. Maria says:

    It’s a small inconvenience for the benefit of community safety and for children. For myself, for my own children, for their friends, and for children I will never meet, I would gladly have my private cell phone number available for any and every Amber Alert.

  5. Libby says:

    As someone who lives in CA but does not have children, I agree with your sentiments here Belle. I’m not bothered or annoyed that I receive Amber Alerts, and I certainly would not want to disable the feature. I still have human compassion.. unless the assholes who complained about their lives being disrupted by the statewide alert or their privacy being intruded upon. People need to get their heads out of their asses in regards to personal privacy. I don’t want to come off as one of those “anti-govt kooks”, but as far as I’m concerned, NOTHING is private anymore and I’m okay with that because I have NOTHING to hide from the government. (Hi NSA!!) As for the Amber Alerts, as far as I know, I’ve been receiving them on my phone for awhile now but some of my peers haven’t. I’m not sure if this is because I have Verizon Wireless and they have AT&T or some other cellular carrier, but regardless, I’d like to be in the know if a child is abducted, even if I don’t currently have any of my own.

  6. Terri says:

    To answer lynn’s question…Asshats! Great term! shame on them.

  7. LAP says:

    I couldn’t believe it this morning when I heard on NPR that people were so upset over the Amber Alert they received to their phone. It’s been over a year since I started receiving these alerts but all of them were of value from the terrorist running around the Boston area after the bombings to a 33″ snowstorm, and recent tornado warnings. If you haven’t heard the warning before, it will be sure to startle you, but that’s the point – to grab your attention. If my child were abducted, surely I would want others to be on alert. I think those that are upset with the alerts should put themselves in the shoes of families that have had a missing loved one and then maybe they would reconsider their complaints.

  8. GoGoGo says:

    Saying mean or dismissive things about kidnappings = bad.

    Saying you were alarmed by a kidnapping alert = not bad.

    Being alarmed when your phone makes an alarming sound you have never heard (Hear the alert sound here: https://binged.it/17cKuT8 ) = not dumb.

    Being totally surprised that it’s possible that this program could be rolled out easily = somewhat naive.

    Feeling uncomfortable with the awareness that this program is so easily rolled out = not naive.

    Opting out = not very community minded, but not evil.

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah, I agree… the alert was a sound I had never heard before on my phone, and it was LOUD. I did not turn off the notifications (of course I think Amber Alert is a great program and I would want to help if they were in my area) but as I’ve never received an alert like that it was just a bit startling, especially later at night. I think people definitely overreacted, and it isn’t something to really complain about, but if you weren’t in CA and didn’t receive the alert you don’t know what your immediate reaction would have been.

      • ohraq says:

        I was at a dinner party recently when a similar sounding weather alert went off on 6 phones at the same time. Was it startling? Yes. Was I glad it was alerting us to dangerous weather? Yes. Did I go on social media and complain about a service meant to help people, however startling? Nope.

        • GoGoGo says:

          I may not ave seen the worst of the social media complaints that went out there. Could someone point me to some really bad examples? Go ahead and show me the worst.

          I didn’t find anything truly offensive about any of the lagnuage used in any of the posts that Belle linked to in her original post. In fact, many people couched their alarm in a caveat about the program being well intended.

          If you find it offensive that that people went on social media at all to talk about this, then I guess I just disagree on that. People go on social media for all kinds of reasons. That would absolutely be a first instinct if I were woken up in the middle of the night. It’s a shared experience thing.

      • Belle says:

        I’ve gotten an Amber Alert to my phone before in another state and it was def. startling. I also got a shock a few weeks ago from a flash flood, and my reaction was basically, “Whoa, what is that? Oh. Ok. Good to know.

  9. joel says:

    I think you missed the underlying reason why people were outraged. They feel violated. Everyone has feeling of ownership and sense entitlement to control who can access their smartphone, computer, etc. Think about how you feel when some @$$hol3 telemarketer get’s through to you mobile – the situations are vastly different but the feeling is the same. The sentiment would be exacerbated if you surprised by the alert, especially if you were not aware it was possible. The knee-jerk late night posts are more indicative of the surprise factor, then the “ass-hat-edness” of the posters. Get off your high-horse.

    • Belle says:

      I think it’s really unfortunate the so many people see an alert as a violation of their privacy, esp. in a world where almost all of your information is publicly available. Your cell phone is made possible by gov’t funded infrastructure and public utilities, so if occasionally the gov’t wants to use that for the public good, I think that’s fine within reason. It’s no different than an emergency alert broadcast on TV. And I’m not upset with people who were startled, I was pretty freaked when I got a flash flood warning a few weeks back, but that’s the point of the system. I’m upset with the people who are going online and on TV talking about how they should never be subjected to these alerts like it’s the Spanish Inquisition and rushing to turn them off because they can’t be bothered.

      • GoGoGo says:

        I would like to think that the national debate about technology and privacy is squarely in the “people on both sides have strong and valid opinions” category and not in the “morons,” “asshats,” or “indecent” cateogry. Call me crazy, but I’d put this in the “really important discussion we need to be having right now” category.

      • Your Neighbor in DC says:

        Just a point here Belle…cell phones are not gov’t funded infrastructure nor are they public utilities. The cell phone companies are unregulated companies and the wireless networks were not built by public funding. They do use public airwaves and spectrum auctioned off by the FCC. Please don’t confuse the two.

        • Belle says:

          Good to know. I didn’t realize they auctioned off the spectrum, I thought it was more of a usage fee situation. Thanks for clearing it up.

      • Steph says:

        “Your cell phone is made possible by gov’t funded infrastructure and public utilities, so if occasionally the gov’t wants to use that for the public good, I think that’s fine”

        Wow, liberal statement of the year.

  10. KDG says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was flummoxed by an expert on NPR this morning who was annoyed he was awoken by the Amber Alert on his phone and actually googled where the young girl was taken from and calculated that he was 500 miles away so why was he getting the alert. I wanted to yell at the radio – Hey moron, abductors don’t settle in next door to the scene of the abduction, they get the hell out of dodge with their victim.

    • GoGoGo says:

      Ideally, wouldn’t it be more effective if that guy got that alert at least like 5 hours later than?

      It’s physically impossible that the suspect gets to his town before then.

      • Belle says:

        I don’t think they were sure exactly how much travel time the guy had, but I think you’d want the alert out before you thought someone might arrive in an area. Sort of like getting the wanted posters to a town before the wanted person got there to give them time to permeate and be seen.

        • GoGoGo says:

          Noted. If they didn’t know how long he’d be on the road, I could imagine that influencing the decisions around this.

      • Wivern921 says:

        So, you are saying then that there should be another layer of software that triangulates where your phone is and then does a math equation to figure out how fast a car may travel, to then sequentially notify people in various increasing radius from the scene of the crime.

        Got it. Anything else you would like? Someone to come rub your head?

        • GoGoGo says:

          Well my real point was just, npr guy necessarily moron, but whatever.

          And a hilarious as my comment was, according to the report belle linked to Amber Alerts can in fact be locally targeted and then s and then scaled up to statewide or regional. That’s a thing.

  11. MDH says:

    I know a lot of people in DC who were similarly extremely annoyed by a 2:30 am emergency weather notification (I think it was flooding, but I don’t remember). A lot of them turned off the notifications as a result. I am wondering if you turned those weather notifications off, are you also not receiving Amber Alerts? I for one keep mine on despite any annoyance. I’d rather be safe, and help keep others safe.

    The noise is pretty terrible though! Working in the Capitol Complex, when I hear people’s emergency alert alarms go off, it’s always a little jarring / terrifying. But then I realize what it is, and it’s a little sigh of relief.

    • Capitol Hill SE says:

      I got one of those weather alerts a couple weeks ago, while I was driving in stormy conditions on a semi-flooded highway. It really was not the best time to have to dig out my phone and disable the warning, but the alert was so loud and annoying that I had to take my eyes off the road for a second and do it. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other drivers on the highways were doing exactly the same thing at that moment.

    • Capitol Hill SE says:

      Also, although I wasn’t terribly annoyed or inconvenienced by the 2:30am notification you mentioned, the noise was very startling and made my heart race. And I saw this as someone who lives on a loud street with emergency vehicles routinely whizzing by my bedroom window. It seems like these alerts would be dangerous for people with heart problems.

  12. katie s. says:

    this is a wonderful article. it is so sad that, to some people, the convenience of not hearing your phone beep outweighs saving even one child’s life. so sad.

  13. GoGoGo says:

    Hm. Doing a little bit of reading.

    Here’s a question for folks in the DC area. I mean it as an actual thought experiment, not a snarky rhetorical question.

    Here is the DC police blotter:

    It looks like in the past 24 hours or so we’ve had 2 kids apparently kidnapped, now resolved. We’ve also had 2 shootings with suspects at-large and 2 robberies at knife point with suspects at-large. Then we’ve had a bunch of robberies and other crimes where no weapon is mentioned. Let’s assume that’s average for the sake of argument.

    Let’s say DC set up an _opt-in_ cell phone alert system for kidnappings, and also one for violent crimes. Would you opt-in to either? Which ones? And if not, why not?

    Let’s ignore that Slate article’s suggestion that Amber Alerts actually have a really thin record of results and assume that phone alerts are really effective at tracking people down.

    Let’s also go ahead and take size into account. Let’s assume that the average DCers “eyes and ears” are orders-of-magnitude more valuable than the average Californians. We’re a geographically tiny community by comparison. SE may seem far from NW, but it’s not San Diego-to-Eureka-far.

    • Belle says:

      Like a lot of ppl, I follow the MDPD and Fire Dept on Twitter to keep up on things. I would absolutely opt in to an Amber Alert system and I’d be interested in what a crime system would entail. I think with that, you could wind up muting the effectiveness of the alerts if there were too many.

      I think part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is that just last month a man from WA state kidnapped his son from his mother’s home, brought him to MT and murdered the boy. No Amber Alert was ever issued because cops didn’t think the boy was in danger. Had one been issued, and had an alert been sent to the cell phones of the drivers and residents along I-90, I would bet bottom dollar the 4yr old boy would have been saved before he made it the 8+ hours to where he was killed.

  14. LO says:

    For me, it’s the sound the phone makes. While I don’t live in CA, if that came in at 10:54 at night, I would not jump in my car to join the search, it’s something I could easily be alerted to the next morning when I woke up. If people are out and about when the alert is posted, then they will likely be looking at their phone regularly and will see the alert.

    I wouldn’t turn the alerts off, but would turn the airhorn sound off, if possible. . .

  15. SLG says:

    I work in marketing/corporate communications, and while I’m totally for protecting children, this sounds to me like a classic example of less-than-ideal change management.

    Anytime you are dealing with a potentially emotional situation, you have to carefully prepare people so they know what to expect. It sounds like people were caught off guard by this alert — and, let’s be real, if you are (a) awakened in the middle of the night, (b) by a loud unfamiliar noise, (c) it has to do with a kidnapped child, and (d) you don’t know how the person/organization who sent you this alert got your number, it’s no surprise if you’re alarmed and possibly upset. Children, physical danger, surprise, privacy — this a cocktail of sensitive issues.

    At the very least, maybe they should have sent one previous message to let people opt-out of the system if they wanted. Something brief, clear, and sent during business hours — and my guess is that very few people would actually have opted out. But then, when the alert came in the middle of the night, people would be likely to respond constructively rather than being upset — and that amounts to more and better protection for children in the long run.

  16. Addison says:

    This also happens with weather alerts and a lot of people feel much safer because they know they can go to bed during a tornado watch and they’ll be awakened if things change. If they happen to be awoken in the middle of the night by an Amber Alert, they should just be thankful their loved ones are safe and sound.

  17. amb007 says:

    I concur that people who complain and turn them off are generally asshats.

    It would be nice if there was an easy way to phone users to change their settings so that they wouldn’t receive alerts like this between certain hours. I’d like to think that some of the asshats might be willing to continue to receive messages if they’re only delivered to them during normal waking hours. While I agree that nearly all people can and should deal with being woken up for the sake of a missing child, there may be semi-legitimate reasons that others may need to opt out of middle-of-the-night alerts. People aren’t going to be help to help or be on the lookout for a missing child or strange vehicle while they are sleeping anway.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still think most of them are asshats, but I’d like to make the system as friendly as possible to encourage people to continue to participate.

  18. Marissa says:

    It wasn’t just people in California who got the alert, it included Oregon and Washington state as well.

    If the sound was anything like the DC weather alert sound, I understand where they’re coming from. That sound is terrifying. The first time I heard it it took several minutes for me to stop shaking. I’ve noticed that if I have my phone on silent though, the alert still happens but the noise doesn’t. I wonder if the people complaining just don’t silent their phones when they go to sleep? I always do because I have a lot of west coast friends who forget about the time difference and will text me at 1am, but then I don’t have any kids I have to worry about either…

  19. Sarah says:

    interesting discussion. I don’t see it as much of an intrusion (and I’m someone bothered by the thought of the government tracking and keeping records of my phone activity) – for exactly the reason Belle said. It’s like, a robocall in a campaign, or an emergency broadcast on TV – a nuisance but a minor intrusion. I also agree with others, because I’d love to turn off the sound. It scared the crap out of me while driving in the rain during the flood alerts we got here recently. I probably would NOT enjoy a 2:30 am alert, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing if it were important info. I’d not opt out, but I’d like to change the noise as well. And people love to navel-gaze and complain over everything minute thing that happens to them on social media so I’m not at all surprised it became a twitter, instagram, Facebook thing. I’d hope they wouldn’t opt out for self-preservation if nothing else – even for me in June, in the car, it could’ve been important to know to watch for washed out roads.

  20. It’s my privilege as a citizen to be able to help other people in trouble.

    • CH says:

      I wish more people thought like this.

    • Whitney says:

      I feel the same as Kathleen. I live in GA and received the Amber Alert text alarm for the first time at about 1am and it scared the crap out of me, but when I opened the message and read it, I said, “Oh wow, that’s a smart idea.”

      As for the security issues? Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of L&O:SVU but unless I see the “https:” in the url or have to enter a username and password for access, I have always assumed that anyone from the service provider to the NSA to the hacker at the next table at Starbucks can access whatever information I type or share online, and there has never been anything *secure* about a mobile phone. Until we’re able to develop laws that can actually keep pace with our rapid tech development (which might be happening sooner than I thought), I’m fine with the government putting it to good use with Emergency Broadcasting Alerts.

  21. Milissa says:

    It is sooooo surprising to me the number of people who complained about it. Moreover, it wasn’t like they snooped into our lives, they came to our homes, they called me byname on the alert…. they sent it to all phones.. All phones! How is that an invasion of my privacy? Also, I think people are a little too sensitive about their privacy! Shouldn’t we be living our lives in a way that it doesn’t matter if the government views it? If they want to see my FB posts or tweets then so be it! They’ll be awfully bored 🙂 Possibly saving a child’s life from a mad man would be far more important than me simply deleting the alert if it bothered me that much!! Signed Southern Cal Gal……..

  22. Mrs. F. says:

    It’s interesting to me that so many people who didn’t get the alert have such strong feelings about it! The Amber Alert scared the crap out of my husband and I. It sounded like the world was ending. We couldn’t figure out how to turn it off or how it was turned on in the first place. But the worst part about it was the Alert did not provide ANY useful information–e.g., where the kids were taken, what they looked like, whether there was more than one kid missing, what the driver looked like, etc. The only thing it said was that an Amber Alert was issued and that it was for a blue nissan (with license plate). And it didn’t link to any story, website, anything that would have provided useful information to make the alert helpful. So while the Amber Alerts in theory are a good idea (I used to subscribe via text message and it was a great service, lots of info with links to find out more), the current alerts aren’t even helpful. We immediately unsubscribed, but I would happily turn them back on if they were redesigned to be useful.

  23. Shelley says:

    I was in Southern California when this Amber Alert sounded and neither of my cell phones alerted me – 1 with a Ca area code and 1 with an East Coast number. I wonder what the criteria is for getting the alert. I wouldn’t have minded receiving the notice since it would be a small inconvenience to my evening. I’m actually a little concerned I will be missing out on other important information since I’m in the black hole of notifications I guess.

  24. ESDonnelly says:

    I was actually in the SF area when this occurred. I live in DC, but my weather app (1weather highly recommended) actually gave me an alert. It was just like the thunderstorm warnings it normally gives, but since it knew I was in the area it sent the amber alert. I actually found it interesting that it was included in the alerts I normally get, and not at all intrusive.

  25. Liz says:

    I will say that as a person who has received extremely bad news by telephone late at night (telling me of the very unexpected death of my brother in a car accident), I am generally pretty freaked if my phone rings “after hours.” So, I guess I can understand having some anxiety over this. However, that anxiety is very short-lived and pales in comparison to the anxiety suffered by the child and loved ones affected in an Amber Alert situation. So even if it makes my heart race, I’m all for it. We should do everything we can to keep our children safe.

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