10 Comments

Summary:

A major backlash on Twitter and Reddit erupted after the NYPD issued an AMBER alert for an abducted 7-month-old boy, prompting some users to turn the system off entirely. Are we doing this wrong?

AmberAlertiPhone

We talk a lot about using technology to create more personalization — to deliver services or messages to just the right person or people. AMBER alerts are an example of the opposite: using tech to hit a mass audience as fast as possible. And, just like users can freak out when an advertiser seems to know a little too much about them, they can also get riled up when it seems like their personal space is being breached for something that doesn’t seem to apply to them.

At 3:51am EST, many New Yorkers awoke to a jarring alarm-like noise from their smartphones — similar to a fire alarm. The information on it, an AMBER alert, notified residents that 7-month-old Mario Danner, Jr., had been kidnapped by his mother, Mariana Lopez, after a visitation with him at a Harlem foster care center.

At a much more reasonable hour in the morning , angry New Yorkers took to Twitter and Reddit to express their feelings about the notifications, with many looking for a way to turn them off. Gothamist and other local publications obliged, creating how-tos for New Yorkers who wanted to end AMBER alerts for good on their smartphones. (You just turn off the AMBER alert switch with a simple swipe in your notifications.)

The use of the cell network to issue AMBER alerts, called the Wireless Emergency Alert program, has only been federal protocol since January, after Congress voted to approve cell notifications for weather alerts. But it has already caused quite a stir for its execution — its loud droning noise blows through both the Silent and Do Not Disturb modes on phones.

It’s important to note that in order to issue an AMBER alert, authorities must confirm that a child has been kidnapped, feel that the child is in grave danger at the hands of the kidnapper, and have enough information to aid the public in identifying the kidnapper. Lopez, a 25-year-old bipolar woman with a violent streak who no longer had custody of Danner, was considered enough of a danger to alert the city. The goal of an AMBER alert is, obviously, to be heard.

While it’s no fun to be woken up in the middle of the night, disabling the AMBER alert system goes against the spirit of the warning. Created in memory of Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding a bicycle in front of her home, the alert is designed to find children who are in danger as soon as possible. Yes, the blanket warning woke up countless New Yorkers, but it’s also likely that it reached others who were awake at the time. Disabling the alert and encouraging others to do limits the possibility of someone actually being in a position to help.

As of 2pm EST, police had found Danner and his mother, so all is well that ends well. But the AMBER alert for the phone remains a tangle. The “on or off” choice is too strict: There should be an option to silence it while sleeping. But sacrificing a little convenience to help save a child’s life is worth it in the long run.

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  1. Sriram Subramanian Wednesday, July 17, 2013

    I would agree, losing some sleep is totally worth if it helps saving someone’s life.

  2. Anonymous Coward Wednesday, July 17, 2013

    To be blunt, just because I subscribe to a mobile service should not mandate that I become an arm of the state to receive unwanted messages. Landline phones aren’t called, pagers aren’t signaled, fax machines aren’t dialed, IP addresses aren’t contacted, nor are radio and TV programs interrupted.

    If Amber alerts are important and valuable, then the scope should be broadened to all media – not just mobile. And why not use sound trucks at 3:00AM too?

    My most recent Amber alerts have been for lost seniors that wandered away from nursing or private homes. All have been at least 5 miles away.

    Lastly, it’s not clear Amber alerts work.

    Until sensible alternatives are offered, Amber can count me out.

    1. It’s not mandated, it’s an option. I’m not sure if it’s enabled by default.

  3. They should put a optional timer on it to only make noise from 6am to 6pm or whatever the person wants.

  4. Are AMBER alerts effective?

  5. News flash: Life don’t stop when you New Yorkers are sleeping.

    Turn your alerts to “mute” if you don’t want an alert and don’t give a crap about a missing kid because of your beauty sleep. Hope your are full of guilty remorse when the outcome is tragic.

    AMBER alert is a good thing in my opinion and should remain in place as it is.

  6. That’s very sad…….people are constantly tweeting pictures of their food and coffee (like I haven’t seen a Starbucks cup before!). I’m more than happy to get amber alerts if it involves saving someone. The police have presumably vetted it already and decided it was important enough to get out the message. What if it was your kid?

  7. although i was awaken by the disturbing sound – its should continue to be utilized on all phones not just smartphones, and i am happy to hear that there wasnt a terrible ending as in most abductions

    TS

  8. False premises. A sudden 10-second loud and screeching noise to my phone isn’t going to help find anyone.

  9. The problem and the reason for complaints is not for being notified of the Amber Alert–it is for the abusive startle of the Amber Alert sound. That startle could cause someone to have a traffic accident (especially if they have their phone connected to the car audio system), to fall off a ladder, to slip whle cutting something with a knife, or many other scenarios. In addition, if you are driving, the startle nature of the Amber Alert will force you to pull out your cell phone and read the text message, both of which are against the law in many States and may themselves (enhanced by the startle) cause a traffic accident.

    The siren needs to be modified so it does not suddenly come on at full volume but starts at low volume and takes about 5 seconds to come up to full volume. The use of this dangerous startle siren has caused many to turn off–or ask how to turn off–future Amber Alerts.

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