Your Smart Phone
9:30 am
Wed January 16, 2013

Midnight Alert Tone Meant Your Smart Phone Had Just Become A Public Facility

SPEADING THE WORD: Amber Alerts the old way, left, and the new smart phone way which relies on software that government ordered installed on all post-2011 phones.
Credit amberalert.gov, Florida Today

Right now, it’s Amber Alerts for missing children and possible emergency messages from the president.

But the fact is -- as many South Floridians found out this weekend -- the government has found a way to co-opt your smart phone for its own purposes.

The Sun Sentinel tells the story this morning of people jolted awake after midnight on Friday by unusual alert tones coming from their phones. They discovered at the time that it was an alert for a two-year-old who had gone missing but only later that the government had ordered all new smart phones to be accessible for its messages and that access feature had just gone live.

As the Sun Sentinel story goes, the seeds were sown six years ago:

A congressional act in 2006 required all wireless carriers to manufacture phones capable of receiving (Commercial Mobile Alert System messages) by April 2012. The law calls for installing software on the phone that connects to the system and emits the alarming sound.

Buy a new cell phone lately? Chances are you were automatically signed up for the alerts.

Since April, the system has been used mostly to warn citizens about imminent dangers such as tornadoes and hurricanes. It is also designed to send out emergency alerts from the president.

On Jan. 1, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children joined the network and now  sends out the Amber Alerts to wireless phones nationwide. "The purpose of the Amber Alert is to rapidly notify the public as soon as possible when a child is facing danger," said (program manager Bob Hoever). "In this case, the wireless emergency alerts afford us [an opportunity] to reach a much wider audience."

You can opt out of most of the alerts by fiddling with your phone's settings or asking your service provider how to do it. You may not opt out, however, from hearing from the president.

Apparently, the roll-out of the Commercial Mobile Alert System was spotty. Some phone factories installed the software, others didn't, which explains why only some phones got the disquieting dead-of-night-alerts, which one recipient described as sounding like a "Nazi air-raid siren."

They call these things "smart" phones because of their cameras, sensitive microphones and the locator signals that they broadcast continuously.

Did you get a chance to opt in for the new alert system? Will you opt out?