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First California AMBER Alert Shows AT&T's Emergency Alerts Are a Mess 380

Posted by Soulskill
from the learn-to-hyperlink dept.
Mark Gibbs writes "AT&T's implementation of the FCC's Emergency Alerts System provides minimally useful information in an untimely fashion with little geolocational relevance. ... Yesterday California got its first AMBER alert and my notification arrived at 10:54pm. It came up as panel over my lock screen and here's what it looked like on my notifications screen: 'Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.' The problem with this it that's all there is! You can stab away at the message as much as you like but that's all you get, there's no link to any detail and considering the event it related to occurred over 240 miles away from me near to the Mexican border, the WEA service seems to be poorly implemented. Indeed, many Californians were annoyed and confused by the alert and according to the LA Times 'Some cellphones received only a text message, others buzzed and beeped. Some people got more than one alert.' I got a second copy of the alert at 2:22am and other subscribers reported not receiving any alert until late this morning." It seems to have gone down about as well as New York's.
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First California AMBER Alert Shows AT&T's Emergency Alerts Are a Mess

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  • by 0WaitState (231806) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @02:17AM (#44494515)
    Earth to submitter: AT&T is a mess.
  • by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @02:25AM (#44494533)

    All services implemented the same feature and sent the EXACT same nearly useless message (which was written by a CA agency and approved by FEMA before being sent out).

    Makes no sense to single out "AT&T's implementation"... it's mostly the cell phone manufacturer's implementation, and the govt's decision to send it out to the entire state in the middle of the night...

  • by greywire (78262) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @02:54AM (#44494653) Homepage
    First, I was watching cable tv when the show was interrupted by the EBS (with a computer synthesized voice, no less, yet it still sounded like a bad CB radio). My cable box inexplicably returned to some random channel that I wasnt watching. Thanks Time Warner and Motorola, your cable box SUCKS in yet another aspect. Then, hours later (at like 10pm or so), all three t-mobile cell phones got the alert. We got the alert yet again the next day. For something that occurred at around 5PM? The suspect could have been out of state or in mexico by then. At the time I was thinking, what makes this kid so special, this sort of thing probably happens daily.. I didn't know the details on the story until the next day. This might be useful if it arrived within, say, an hour or less of the incident and was sent to phones geographically within the area the suspect could have traveled in that amount of time (80 miles?).
  • by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:10AM (#44494725)

    Did you get the message on your phone? I did. It was just a plain bad experience for most people. Scared the crap out of me, it vibrated and made a crazy loud noise I'd never heard before even though my phone was in my pocket and supposedly on mute. The first thing I did was disable all future amber alerts (which was the only option in the iPhone's settings), as apparently did millions of other people who were woken up or otherwise freaked out by the way it was delivered. One of the main things they needed to avoid with this "opt out" system was the "car alarm syndrome", and they completely failed that.

  • Re:Seriously? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheGeneration (228855) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:10AM (#44494731) Journal

    The message was completely irrelevant for those of us 600+ miles away. I don't even own a car, I live in an urban area. I literally have NO idea what a Nissan Versa looks like. Literally NONE. I NEVER look at license plates on vehicles while I'm walking. NEVER.

    These messages have ZERO relevance. Send me a pic of the kids or the kidnapper. I don't give a shit about the fucking make/model of a car that is 600 miles away (the distance from Washington DC to Florida btw).

    I can only imagine what people in the far Northern side of the state in Shasta or Humboldt thought of it all. 900 miles away something happened and they are also getting this message.

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:11AM (#44494743)
    Not only that, but the entire system itself is so inherently flawed it amounts to little more than “crime-control theater.” [psmag.com]
  • by Opportunist (166417) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:17AM (#44494777)

    They used the national emergency service to inform the population about some child being kidnapped. Erh... Ok, now please tell me why I should care. Yes, yes, it's probably heart breaking for the parents, and yes, yes, if it was my child I'd certainly love to use it for that but the problem is: 99.something % of the population do not give half a fuck, let alone keep an eye out for that car. "Why the fuck should I care about some random brat I don't know about?" will probably be the reaction of nearly ALL the people who got that message.

    I see a "cry wolf" scenario waiting to happen. Some day in the future, something actually important, something that actually is meaningful to most of the population, will happen and people will simply click it away after reading "AMBER AL...", thinking "fuck, that kidnapping fad's getting worse than spam texts".

  • Re:Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:25AM (#44494817)

    It wasn't the middle of the night, I got my message at 10:51 - a time when many people were still awake.

    And they resent it at 2:30am just in case it didn't piss off EVERYONE at 10:51.

    I'm not arguing the whole concept is bad, just the implementation. What the hell is wrong with a text message? Ok, if it's delayed by a few minutes big deal, the 99.9% of the people who are not on the road until the next morning will get it anyway (and technically it's actually *illegal* in CA - and possibly dangerous - for the 0.1% who are on the road - to check it while driving!) And in fact, they will possibly be MORE likely to get it since the first thing I did on my phone going bats hit crazy was unlock it, which cancelled the message window... I never even got to see what it actually said until I read a news article the next day. If it was just a text message I would have seen it on my phone when I woke up, read it and probably digested the contents a lot better (and not immediately opted out of it like many also did).

  • by N1AK (864906) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @03:58AM (#44494943) Homepage

    Disabling an important warning system that could save children seems kind of... selfish.

    Only to someone who jumps to quick, incorrect, conclusions. There are thousands of things everyone could do everyday that could could save or improve others lives. We don't do the vast majority of them because the chance they will help and the time required stops it being viable. The chances of a car happening to travel 300 miles to just where I am, for me to be in a position where I see it, remember (5+ hours after the event) and actually recognise it are tiny. There would be literally dozens of things happening near by that my time would be better spent, still wasted in most cases, doing to help others instead.

    If someone is going to broadcast messages to my phone that they want me to read, let alone treat as a priority, then I need to think they are. If I don't I'm going to avoid seeing as many of them as possible.

  • Re:Not just AT&T (Score:4, Insightful)

    by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @04:05AM (#44494961)

    If you find a noisy phone to be too distracting to drive and you don't want the messages anyway, why not just disable them?

    How many people knew that it would even have been an option? If it weren't for this and the previous NYC story, I wouldn't have known about it.

    (My phone doesn't support it I'm pretty sure.)

    Do you nearly get into accidents when a blaring fire truck goes by or is it only a loud cell phone that distracts you to the point where you nearly crash?

    If a firetruck suddenly appeared out of thin air, it may well do so.

    It's not just the loudness it sounds like (having never heard such an alert) but the suddenness and unfamiliarity.

  • Re:Really? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @04:17AM (#44495005)

    Seriously, do you not understand that the *carrier* can do whatever they want here? They know where all of their customer's cells are all the time, they could implement this with SMS messages just as easily as the system they did end up implementing. Or a system that DIDN'T USE SMS but had the same effect (ever heard of iMessage?) I don't know, seems pretty fucking obvious to me.

    But in the end, as I already said, I'm not against the idea, just the implementation. Who the hell cares which protocol is used to get the message to your phone, the key point is they needed to present it in a way that didn't just piss off people so the turned off the feature, and it was a big failure in that regard.

  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @04:22AM (#44495021)

    Happily you can simply turn off the alert on your phone and remove any random chance you might save someones life, so can can avoid a slightly annoying buzzing that lasts for a few seconds.

    I feel that both positions are overstating things. Saying "a slightly annoying buzzing that lasts for a few seconds" is a dramatic understatement from what people saying it sounds like. (I can't find a sample of what it sounds like.) Being woken up is more than a "slight" annoyance, and there are plenty of situations where being suddenly startled by an unfamiliar loud noise can cause far more damage than "a slight annoyance."

    Those probably make sense for a tornado warning or something like that, but not an AMBER alert. Virtually no one is going to do anything other than roll over and go back to sleep. It sounds like phone manufacturers went too far towards making it obnoxious for that case -- it seems quite unlikely that there would be many cases where a massive alert would garner a response that wouldn't be achieved through a simple text message alert for example.

  • by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @04:43AM (#44495097)

    Once the system is in place there is hardly any money involved in sending out an alert. The attention is minimal

    That's totally untrue. I'm not just talking about the phone part, I'm questioning the whole system - remember AMBER alerts are not just about phone messages, but billboards, radio and TV alerts, police response, FEMA review, tons of false positive reports, etc. I read an article where authorities complained that an AMBER alert hoax cost taxpayers large amounts of money all told ($50-$100k+). I assume the hoaxes cost the same as the "real" ones, so it's clearly impossible that there is hardly any money involved.

    It's called opportunity cost. These alerts aren't free and resources are limited. The argument that "if it saves one child it will be worth any cost" is unfortunately not a good one when there are so many thousands that could be helped in other, much more common circumstances if the limited resources were used more wisely.

  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @05:05AM (#44495173)

    The radius needs to be quite wide, because a person can travel a great distance in a car in a short period of time. 800 miles would not be unreasonable depending on when the missing child was reported.

    By that reasoning, at the time the AMBER alert was issued, it would have been justifiable to announce it to about 1/2 of the continental US.

    Reasoning:
    - The kidnapping occurred no later than ~8pm Sunday
    - The earliest AMBER alerts (according to the summary) started around ~11pm Monday; let's be kind and say that they started around 8pm
    - That gives 24 hours for the kidnapper to get somewhere
    - If the kidnapper drove at 60 mph for that time (that is... moderately realistic if he planned for it), he'd be able to clear 1,440 miles
    - The entire west coast up to Seattle would be in fairly easy range; Austin would be in range; Houston is barely out of range according to 1440 miles (though Google Maps estimates it at under 21 hours, and puts New Orleans at 25 hrs); Omaha is a bit out of range by 1440 miles (but in range per Google Maps's estimate of 22:40); Sheridan, WY and the Montana border are in range

    And that's just counting what he'd be able to do by the time the alert was issued. Want them to plan ahead for where he might be in another 12 hours? Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, etc. are all in fairly easy range; Tampa, Pittsburgh, and Raleigh are maybe possible.

  • Re:Seriously? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by KillAllNazis (1904010) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @05:56AM (#44495387)
    Maybe, but so is the number of accidents caused by placemats.
  • by Arrogant-Bastard (141720) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @06:03AM (#44495413)
    This is as beautiful an example of idiotic, worthless, counterproductive security theater as we've seen.

    For starters, the implementation is something I'd expect from a drunk college sophomore who's been pulling C grades in CS courses. It's miserable. The most significant effects it's had have been to alarm, confuse, annoy and distract people -- some of whom were driving. Great idea, that last one: cause their cell phone to make a noise they've heard before so that it increases the probability they'll pick it up and look at it.

    Second, the lack of detail is outrageously stupid. A recipient of this message who just happened to see such a vehicle might approach it because there's nothing in it warning them not to.

    Third, sending it 24 hours later is idiotic. Any competent murdered would be in a different vehicle by then. (Once again, police assume that everyone is as stupid as they are. Most people aren't.)

    Fourth, sending it multiple times ensures that many people will disable it. Way to go, alleged public safety officials.

    Finally, the entire concept behind this is insane. Untrained civilians are poor observers (as anyone who's studied trial witness dynamics for even an hour knows). How many blue cars got reported because they might be Nissan Versas? (I have no idea what one of those looks like; hell, I didn't even know there was such a model.) How much manpower got diverted to deal with all those false reports instead of being used to pursue leads based on hard evidence?

    This is just another case of lazy, sloppy, incompetent police work -- like we saw in Boston when they closed down the entire city and rolled armored vehicles through the streets to catch one frightened teenager and STILL couldn't manage to pull it off. It seems that the pigs in California only know how to drink coffee and shoot helpless unarmed civilians in the back -- something challenging, like tracking down a murderer, is far beyond their pitifully feeble minds.
  • Re:Seriously? Yes! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @07:12AM (#44495633)

    Go through the cases individually, and you'll find it's a lot more equal than you'd like to admit. When cops get called out, they're far more likely to assume the male is the aggressor - and in fact, they will most likely behave in a dominant fashion toward the male, and certainly behave in a sympathetic fashion toward a whimpering female in a given situation. That behaviour causes things to get worse. I've heard of a man being arrested after the female stabbed him in the arm. I've seen men arrested after women assaulted them. I've lived through it with an ex- who was both abusive and aggressive, and would go crying to any male around.

    Then there was my mother, who beat herself up and called the police. They prosecuted my father for it, too. That'll go in your statistics in spite of it being a complete lie.

    For the record, that didn't happen just the once, either. It happened at least twice, and probably a lot more often than that. Remember: I lived through it. This is first hand.

    (I also lived through it when my mother tried to stab me with a kitchen knife, after through dinner plates at me, then started screaming that I was going to assault her. She had a knife, I was barefoot, and surrounded by broken crockery and glass: she was simply putting on a scene for whoever was listening.)

    In much the same way that insurance companies ask if you've had any alcohol within the 24 hours preceding a car accident, the statistics you cite simply reflect social bias. Serial killers are usually intelligent white males, so when someone starts researching a serial killer the model begins with "Assuming a white male, intelligent..." If something doesn't fit that profile, it's far more likely to be dropped, and thus not represented in the statistics.

    Social bias has it that women are weaker, and need defended from the evil bad mean big bully males, who beat them up. (Social bias completely forgets that women have faster reflexes, and the strength difference between men and women isn't as great as most believe it is, making a fight more of an even match.) Women are dainty and girly and tiday, not aggressive and non-violent, while mean eat steak and drink beer, drive cars fast, pick fights, and shout a lot. Women don't go and get in fights, but guys do.

    This is all bullshit. Time to update your profile of humanity.

  • by TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @08:20AM (#44495919)

    Look out for a LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door moron.

    You are not the police so you are not entitled to know everything man. In the meantime while bitching about this on Slashdot you probably missed the BLUE Nissan Versa whizzing past you with the licence 6WCU986 heading North on the freeway.

    If Californians are really that confused when given the license plate number AND description of a car that contains a kidnapped child then I apologize to the whole state of California for containing citizens too stupid for words.

    I would agree that you should be allowed to opt out of this if you truly find the repeated messages sent by police trying to save the life of a child annoying and confusing. I think there should be a "heartless idiot" clause with every cellphone contract that lets self absorbed fucktards opt out of potentially life saving notices.

    In the rest of the country and around the world:

    "'Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door"

    Is painfully obvious!

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @08:21AM (#44495929) Homepage Journal

    The Amber alert is so-named because that's who it's for finding, little white girls who could be named Amber.

    Where in holy hell do you go to get a list of Amber alerts anyway? You sure can't go to Amberalert.gov [amberalert.gov], they don't have any useful information there. You can get press releases there, but not amber alerts. Your tax dollars at rest! Oh wait, on the site index, I found a link to missingkids.com [missingkids.com]. Wait, that's just another informational page on amber alerts! If this program's goal were to find missing kids then the whole front page of amberalert.gov would be [the] current amber alert[s]. It isn't. It's to give the appearance of giving a shit. (Holy shit, the front page of missingkids.com has no missing kids on it, either.)

    Amber alerts are bullshit from bullshit people.

  • by whoever57 (658626) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @11:13AM (#44497705) Journal

    As a European in the USA, I have noticed that there is a stronger tendency to think that "something must be done" for every issue, even if that "something" makes no sense.

    Amber alters are one of those "somethings"

  • by FatLittleMonkey (1341387) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @12:09PM (#44498417)

    But if poor implementation (this is not just a text-alert noise, which mutes to vibrate when told to), results in millions of people disabling Amber alerts, then you've dramatically reduced the chance of it "reaching one person who can help find the missing child" next time.

    Worse, if it results in reflexively people turning off all such warnings (including weather/emergency alerts), then you've also reduced the chance of people receiving appropriate warnings of danger. Ie, you've increased the risk of preventable deaths.

    In other words, the system most definitely didn't work.

    Any alert that sounds when it's not needed merely trains people to ignore all such alerts. This is pretty basic "emergency" psychology, and hardly new.

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