A backlash over AMBER alerts: choosing between some extra sleep and finding a missing kid

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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