The worst way to learn about a new feature on your phone is to be woken up by it in the middle of the night. Or to have it startle you when you're driving. In general, the less frightening a phone notification is, the better -- especially when it involves loud screeches and sirens.
Over the last 24 hours, Californians have become the latest group to discover the government's new mobile phone emergency alert system. It could have been a groundbreaking demonstration of how technology can be used to assist in public safety. Instead, we have yet another case study showing what happens when good government intentions meet poor design and execution.
A horrible crime occurred in San Diego county last night, and authorities were right to reach out to the public for help in finding two abducted children. It turns out that this is the first time California has used the Wireless Emergency Alert program, a public-private partnership between phone carriers and government agencies to create a modern-day mobile emergency alert system, to issue a state-wide Amber Alert. New Yorkers experienced a similar set of events last month, and since the program launched in April 2012, carriers have been rolling out the program to different phones and areas around the country.
The problem is that nobody was asked whether they wanted to take part in this program, that decision was made on their behalf.
So, in the middle of the night, when their phones started making loud noises and displaying strangely-worded messages about a blue Nissan, many Californians found themselves more angry and confused than eager and concerned. It is a worthy idea to modernize emergency alert systems, but in its current form, the program may end up alienating people to the point where they opt-out entirely. That would be a great loss.
Many of the program's details are the result of policy considerations, not user experience observations. The loud, jarring noises are that way to accommodate people with hearing and vision disabilities. The alerts are delivered as notifications instead of less-invasive SMS because those sometimes get delayed if there is heavy traffic. Although it is voluntary for carriers, customers are only notified if their carrier does not take part in the program. The messages themselves provide license plate numbers with little context or explanation -- which is fine for a highway road sign, but seems strange and out of place on a mobile phone. As a whole, this does not translate into a functional, practical delivery.
Instead of dealing with the privacy implications of a device that the government can use to solicit your participation in a manhunt within seconds, the program has chosen not to focus on them. That decision is both unwise and counterproductive. If they are unable to convince people to participate now, they will close off an entire avenue for solving crimes in the future.
These alerts become more useful the more precise they are. If you could target people down to the level of the building, street, or neighborhood they are in, you are more likely to find what you are looking for. It is not a stretch to imagine a future where your phone flashes an image of a stolen bike just seconds after it's reported missing in your neighborhood, or if there is a wanted suspect, their picture and description are sent to everyone within the area. And while these types of developments will require new limitations and oversight, there are certainly some instances where it can be used to benefit the public in general.
What these alerts-by-default create is an extension of the surveillance state rather than an upgrade to the neighborhood watch. There are many people who would be thrilled to assist the police and keep an eye out for dangerous, criminal activities. But by taking an opt-out only approach, this program might end up driving away the very people that could help stop the next tragedy from occurring. More than a privacy or public relations mishap, this is a missed opportunity for public safety.