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UK launches mobile phone emergency alert initiative

  • 5 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 23 Mar 2023
  • Last modified 21 Mar 2023
Written by Scott Bicheno for Telecoms.com

The UK government will soon conduct a nationwide test of a system that will allow it to push messages to nearly all mobile phones.

Sensibly named, the Emergency Alerts service was launched yesterday. We’re told it will only be used when there is an imminent risk to life, which it is assumed will be a very rare event. While it’s hard to imagine such an event, about which potentially affected people would have otherwise been ignorant, another channel for emergency communication seems like a good thing, on the surface.

“We are strengthening our national resilience with a new emergency alerts system, to deal with a wide range of threats – from flooding to wildfires,” said government Minister Oliver Dowden. “It will revolutionise our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger, and help us keep people safe. As we’ve seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, the buzz of a phone can save a life.

“Emergency Alerts will be used across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and their initial use will focus on the most serious severe weather-related incidents, including severe flooding in England. The Government has been working closely with a range of stakeholders and partners across the UK on developing the system, including colleagues from the emergency services, transport groups and the Environment Agency.”

“Together with every fire and rescue service in the country, I’m looking forward to having Emergency Alerts available to help us to do our jobs and to help communities in the event of emergencies,” said Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mark Hardingham. “We’ve seen this type of system in action elsewhere across the world and we look forward to having the facility here in the UK – by working together with fire services and partners we want this system to help us to help you be as safe as you can if a crisis does hit.”

There will be a national test of the system on 23 April, during which people will receive an alert as per the video below. To compel acknowledgment of it, all other features will be locked until the user does so. If that feels a bit too intrusive, smartphone owners can opt out of this system by searching for ‘emergency alerts’ on their device and turning off ‘severe alerts’ and ‘extreme alerts’.

While the system seems entirely benign at this stage, there is a risk of it being the thin end of the wedge when it comes to state interference in telecoms in the name of safety, with the definition of an emergency entirely determined by the government. Recent events in Punjab, India offer a glimpse of how far the state can take such powers.

The police there are trying to arrest a separatist leader named Amritpal Singh and seem to think that effort will be helped by cutting off mobile internet access from all 27 million residents of the state. As well as being draconian and hugely disruptive, the fact that voice calls are still being allowed makes the move especially baffling.

An alternative motivation could be concern that the hunt for Singh will generate sympathy for his cause and the government is hoping to curtail its spread by preventing the sharing of associated content (see tweet below). If so this ban, which has lasted for two days so far, sets a new precedent for state censorship, which exponents of the sort of thing revealed in the Twitter Files might be taking note of.

The Punjab government doesn’t seems to have published anything relating to the mobile comms ban on its website, but part of a press release addressing the broader crackdown says “The spokesperson further said that strict action as per law will be taken if anyone found spreading fake news, rumors and hate speech. All citizens, media persons and social media platform intermediaries are requested to act in a responsible manner and to fact-check the authenticity of the content being shared by them on various social media, electronic media and print media platforms, he added.

“He also appealed to the citizens not to pay heed to fake news and rumors and to fact-check authenticity from the police. All mischievous elements attempting to disrupt peace and harmony in the state shall be dealt with strictly, he added. Punjab Police is committed to maintain law & order and rule of law in the state.”

The Indian Express got hold of a statement from the Punjab police/fact-checkers, featuring further warnings about people threatening the ‘tranquillity’ of the State. “…these sections of society widely use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp etc and also Short Message Service (SMS) for spreading of inflammatory material and false rumours, to provoke mobilization of mobs of agitators and demonstrators, mobilize their own manpower and resources for their anti-national activities,” it said.

We have no idea of the merits of this separatist movement and it is the duty of the state to protect the safety of its citizens. But censoring all messaging is another matter and mere political opposition is a threat only to incumbent power. There is a global trend of political elites seeking to control mobile communications and internet services in order to protect their positions and it’s vital, for many reasons, that legitimate public safety uses such as this UK initiative are never abused for political purposes.

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