How does the government’s new emergency alert message system work?


n Sunday 23 April your phone will play a loud siren for 10 seconds even if it is on silent.

That is because the government is testing a new emergency system to warn citizens of urgent threats. This, the government says, will bring us into line with countries like the United States, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands which all use similar systems to warn of severe weather events.

How does the system work, can you opt out and what does it mean for privacy? All these questions and more are explored below.

What happens when an emergency alert is sent out?

If there is an emergency in your area, a siren-like sound will play on your phone for about 10 seconds. This will be accompanied by a pop-up message onscreen outlining the details alongside key telephone numbers and links for more information. The experience will be like this:

The sounds will still play even if your phone is on silent mode, and you’ll have to acknowledge that you’ve seen the alert before you can return to using your phone as usual.

If an alert is sent in your area, there are only three reasons you won’t hear a siren: if your phone is off, if it’s on airplane mode or if you’ve opted out. More on the last of these later.

Why not just send a text message?

Two reasons. Firstly, a simple text message can easily be missed, while emergency alerts require user interaction, making them more effective.

Secondly, emergency alerts should be near instant, arriving at phones within four to 10 seconds of being triggered. As anybody who has received a “Happy New Year” text at 6am on New Year’s Day will know, SMS delivery grinds to a halt when lots of messages are being sent at the same time.

In short, the system is designed to get emergency messages out en masse as quickly as possible, and read by everyone they reach. SMS simply isn’t the best vehicle for these goals.

Do I need a smartphone to get emergency alerts?

Technically no, but in most cases yes. That’s because emergency alerts work on the 4G and 5G networks, and while there are feature phones that use them, the majority don’t.

Emergency alerts won’t be sent over 3G or 2G, which is hardly surprising given both are being phased out. Despite this, the government estimates that 90% of the population will be covered in some form or other.

To receive emergency alerts on a smartphone, you do need to be reasonably up to date, however.

On Apple phones, you need to be running iOS 14.5 or later. iPhone 13 and 14 devices are shipped with this, but anything from the iPhone 6s and newer is capable of running it.

Android devices have to be running Android 11 or later. That OS is from 2020, but some phones on older versions “may still be able to receive alerts”, the government said. “To check, search your device settings for ‘emergency alerts’.”

This will just be for emergencies, right?

Yes. The alerts can only be used by authorised government and emergency services. So you won’t be getting 2-for-1 pizza coupons via the system.

What sort of emergencies? The government’s own FAQ suggests events that involve “severe threats to life in particular areas” including flooding and wildfires.

It isn’t stated but it seems likely that the government’s Covid-19 stay-at-home message could also have qualified, had the system been operational at the time. This was the case in the United States, where it has also been used to highlight police curfews and, once, to erroneously warn Hawaiians of an imminent ballistic missile attack.

Will emergency alerts hit my phone’s battery?

“Neither emergency alerts nor having the ability to receive them will impact your phone’s battery life,” the government said.

What should you do if you’re driving?

There’s no need to acknowledge an emergency alert immediately. You just won’t be able to use your phone until you have, which shouldn’t be an issue if you’re driving anyway.

“Find somewhere safe and legal to stop before picking up your phone and reading the message,” the government said. “If there is nowhere safe or legal to stop close by, and nobody else is in the vehicle to read the alert, tune into live radio for information until you can find somewhere safe and legal to stop.”

What are the privacy implications?

The government says there are none, as its emergency alerts don’t collect any personal data.

“The system uses the cell tower your phone is connected to,” it explains. “When an alert is triggered, all towers in the area will broadcast the alert. To do this the Government does not need to know the specific location or personal data on your device.”

We contacted Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and the Open Rights Group to find out if these reassurances were enough for them. At the time of writing, none have issued a response, which perhaps suggests it’s not the biggest privacy concern for them at the moment.

Can I opt out of emergency alerts?

Yes, you can, though the government urges you not to. “These alerts are potentially life-saving so we recommend you keep them switched on,” it says.

In iOS, go to Settings then Notifications. You’ll find two options at the bottom: Extreme Alerts and Severe Alerts, which can be toggled off if you want to opt out.

On Android devices, it’s also under Settings and Notifications but will be called something like “Wireless Emergency Alerts”.

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