Cerillion: Don’t panic! Emergency SMS alerts come to your phone

Could a text message save your life in an emergency? From this summer the UK Government will send alerts to all mobile phones in the event of major accidents and disasters – what has taken so long to implement compared to the systems used in many other countries ?

Just as we recently wrote that telecommunications is a vital but vulnerable service in times of civil unrest and war, it can be equally important in times of emergency and natural disaster.

The UK government will launch an official system later this year to send emergency alerts to all phones in a given region, or across the country, in the event of major incidents or weather conditions. extremes that can be life threatening.

The UK’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat first considered the idea in 2013, saying that “in an emergency it is vital that information is released to the public as quickly as possible so that they can take the necessary measures to protect themselves and their loved ones. safe families”. The public agreed, with 85% of poll respondents agreeing it was a good idea. So what took so long?

That program languished for years until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the government was criticized for not following its own guidelines and having already put in place a robust emergency alert system. Instead, they were forced to work with the four major MNOs to send 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 enabled, all connected phones and tablets in a designated area – provided they are running at least iOS 14.5 or Android 11 and are at least 4G capable – will play a text-to-speech warning, which will be followed by a ten-second siren, even if set to silent.

Cell broadcast works even when the network is congested and requires users to acknowledge receipt of the message before they can continue using their device, although it does not notify authorities whether or not a message has actually been acknowledged.

O2 customers (as well as users of the Giffgaff, Sky Mobile and Tesco Mobile MVNOs) got a taste of the service in May last year, when many were subjected to an unannounced test of the system:

Cell broadcasting is already used in a number of places, including the EU, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Chile, the Philippines and the United States – where it is also used for 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 disabled.
One such chilling alert came in January 2018, when the United States Emergency Alert System accidentally sent a false alert to Hawaii residents, warning of an incoming ballistic missile and urging users to “LOOK FOR IMMEDIATE SHELTER”.

A subsequent FCC investigation found that “the Hawaiian government had not put in place reasonable safeguards or process controls to prevent the transmission of a false alarm.”

It is therefore normal that the deployment of the British system comes at a time of international tension, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As noted by the I newspaper hysterically the UK hasn’t had an early warning system in place to alert the public to a nuclear attack since its Cold War-era infrastructure was shut down, and that would probably be another job for new alerts.

The approach represents a marked change from previous attempts to manage telecommunications during emergencies, which focused on keeping people disabled their phones and give the networks some breathing room.

From the 1950s to 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 an emergency only the most important telephone calls would be connected. This was for national security matters – the country’s air raid siren system being controlled by telephone and its operators receiving their orders via the same lines used by the speaking clock.

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

In the 1990s, the mobile counterpart to the GTPS, Access Overload Control (ACCOLC), prioritized access to UK mobile networks for designated VIPs in the event of an incident overwhelming the networks with increased calls.

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

The July 7 review board report found that ACCOLC was hardly used, as it was “not clear that the right staff would wear ACCOLC-enabled phones”. Once activated, the decision was found to have been made “outside the command and control structure” of the Metropolitan Police’s Gold Coordination Group, which holds sole authority over the use of the device. ‘ACCOLC.

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

With the improvement in network bandwidth, network downtime is no longer as frequent; MTPAS was not activated during the 2011 London riots – fortunately, as the failure of the police Airwave digital radio, deployed after 7/7, caused many officers to resort to their personal devices.

Obviously, the importance of connectivity in an emergency takes precedence over shutting off 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 to measure earthquakes in California, alerting users to danger – i.e. say if the tremor had not already alerted them.

While such an alert system undoubtedly has potentially life-saving utility, these cases prove that it is not without flaws; as with many new phone-based initiatives, the bias towards modern devices will inevitably leave some users out in the cold.

Also, those who receive potentially life-saving information may not resent it – the US government has been taken to court over the Presidential Alerts system for “violating[ing] the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution,” while South Korea’s alert system has been criticized for revealing too much personal data about citizens infected with COVID.

Who is responsible for activations? False alerts aside, overuse of such a system by various government agencies could create a boy-cried-wolf situation, leading some to ignore a genuine 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.

While this is undoubtedly a good idea in principle, the powers that be must exercise caution and good practice with such a warning system, ensuring that it triggers alarmsdo not alarmism.

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