4 a.m. Wake Up Call

By September 22, 2013 September 9th, 2019 Communications

Have you been startled by your government alerts yet? Here’s an article that helps explain what the alerts are, how they work, and the debate over their effectiveness.

Wake-Up Call for New Yorkers as Police Seek Abducted Boy


In cases of child abduction, law enforcement officers often rush to alert as many people as they can since the grim reality is that the odds of finding a child worsen with each passing moment.

So countless bleary-eyed New Yorkers were jolted upright just before 4 a.m. on Wednesday when their cellphones suddenly started blaring with a message about a 7-month-old boy who had been abducted hours earlier by his mother, who had a history of mental illness, from a foster care agency in Harlem.

It was a watershed moment in the intersection of law enforcement and technology: the first mass Amber Alert sent to cellphones in the city since a national wireless emergency alert system was established. And, the police later said, it directly led to the child’s being located.

While many people saw the value in getting the alert, many others were not as embracing, recounting their panic, confusion and irritation on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Dozens of readers vented their frustration over the unexpected early wake-up on The New York Times’s Web site, with one man suggesting it might have annoyed people to the point that they would turn off future alerts, and others questioning whether an alert would really help find the child.

But it also illustrated the growing reach of a vast public communications network that connects more people than ever before, using the ubiquitous cellphones that many people keep with them at all times and even sleep beside at night.

While cellphone users can adjust their settings or ask their carriers to turn off Amber and other emergency alerts, they do not have the option of tuning out completely. The highest level of alert intended for catastrophic events — known as the presidential alert — cannot be disabled, though not a single one has yet been issued.

Lee Tien, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on privacy and government surveillance issues, said the cellphone alerts could potentially undermine the relationship people have with their electronic devices. “We’ve always insisted that these emergency alerts be opt-in and that there be very careful controls on them because fundamentally the big issue here is who controls your device,” he said.

In the case of the mass alert on Wednesday, the events started unfolding after the authorities said that Marina Lopez, 25, of Queens, had abducted her son, Mario Danner Jr., on Tuesday afternoon.

The baby had been placed in foster care within the last three months. Ms. Lopez was reported to be bipolar and had shown recent outbreaks of violence, the authorities said.

The New York Police Department asked the State Police on Tuesday night to issue an Amber Alert, which was initially broadcast on television, radio and the Internet. It was transmitted, through the wireless emergency network, to cellphone users in New York City and surrounding counties in the early hours on Wednesday after investigators discovered that the child might be riding in a car. The cellphone alert, which must be 90 characters or fewer, included the car’s license plate.

“You have a lot of people on the road at that hour,” said Robert Hoever, director of special programs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which tracks Amber Alerts across the country. “You’re looking for those eyes and ears to try to find that child.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the police said that they had found Ms. Lopez and her son in “good condition.” Ms. Lopez was arrested and charged with custodial interference. The police said she was found after the Amber Alert led to a tip to the department’s Crime Stoppers hot line.

The child was abducted from New York Foundling, a foster care agency. “While stringent protocols are in place, we are thoroughly investigating the circumstances surrounding this unfortunate event,” the agency said in a statement. “Our agency monitors over 50 supervised visits a week with the children in our care and only two such incidents have occurred in the last 20 years.”

The Amber Alert was transmitted via a national cellular network, known as the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which was mandated by Congress in 2006 as a way to supplement radio and television broadcasts. It was built through a partnership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry. FEMA, which administers the network, has authorized designated federal, state and local agencies, including the New York State Police, to use it. After receiving an alert from an agency, FEMA transmits it to cellular carriers, which then relay it to cellphone users.

The first alerts went out in 2011, and most of them have been weather-related warnings, FEMA officials said. The alerts are automatically received by many newer cellphones, which are linked to the network, as well as by some prepaid phones and even older phones that have updated software installed.

The cellular phone industry estimates that more than 300 million people use cellphones in the United States, said Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for CTIA, a wireless trade association that represents over 200 companies. Phone carriers are not required to transmit alerts through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, but all of the largest companies do so, as well as some smaller ones, she said.

Ms. Storey said the alerts were sent through a separate technology from the one used for text-messaging, and were not subject to delays in service or heavy traffic. In addition, alerts are issued for specific locations and automatically download to cellphones in an area even if the owners do not live there. So on Wednesday, some commuters who live in New Jersey did not get the alert until they arrived in Manhattan.

Amber Alerts were first issued in the 1990s in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after a local girl was abducted and murdered. The alerts, which initially were broadcast on TV and radio, later spread to road signs and social media sites. In 2005, the alerts were transmitted to cellphone users who opted to receive the messages through their carriers. By 2012, there were about 700,000 cellphone numbers receiving the alerts.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts system, however, can reach millions of people. More than 50 alerts for abducted children have been carried on cellphones around the country since December, Mr. Hoever said, including an alert in Suffolk County on Long Island in February that was the first in New York State.

One former state law enforcement official, Michael Balboni, said the alert system should be used prudently.

“It is crucial that emergency notification systems take every precaution to never ‘cry wolf’ or alert needlessly,” said Mr. Balboni, former deputy secretary of public safety for the state. “The risk is evident: If the public loses faith in the system, they may stop participating and the purpose of the system will be lost.”


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