A couple of nights ago I had just closed my book, turned off my light, and was drifting off to sleep when my cellphone started to shriek. I shot awake and groped for the phone. My sleep-befuddled brain was greeted with this message: "Boulevard, CA Amber Alert update." Then there was a license plate number, and a make and model of the car.
Groggily, I Google this town — Boulevard, Calif. — and discovered it was 541 miles away from my house. That's more than the distance between Washington, D.C., and Detroit. I was mystified. Why was I getting this?
And I wasn't the only Californian who was confused.
Jamie de Guerre is at Topsy, a firm that analyzes Twitter traffic and content for businesses. "We saw a very, very high spike in the number of people tweeting the phrase 'Amber Alert' and responding to having seen this on their phone," he says.
Before the alarm, that phrase was receiving a handful of mentions on Twitter, but in the hours immediately after the alert went out across California, it was mentioned in more than 160,000 tweets.
"The sentiment of the overall tweets was definitely negative," de Guerre says.
More than 21,000 tweets used the phrase "Amber Alert" and the word "scared." "OMFG" came up more than once, the word "annoying" more than 1,700 times.
"The last thing that wireless providers want to do is annoy their subscribers," says Brian Josef, who handles government affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying association in Washington. "What we don't want to see is a car alarm syndrome where people disregard the alerts, or worse, they opt out."
Now, an official at the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children is asking the Federal Communications Commission, the wireless association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider changing the wireless emergency alert system to allow Amber Alerts to include links to more information.
"Do I think a link is valuable? Yes, I do think a link is valuable," says Robert Hoever of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "And we are researching that with the FCC, FEMA and the wireless industry. ... Right now, at this point, we are asking for permission to do it."
The wireless emergency alert system rolled out for mobile phones in the U.S. at the beginning of the year. Amber Alerts about abducted children are only a part of it. There are similar warnings for dangerous weather or even national emergencies.
If you grew up in the 1980s or '90s, this may seem familiar. Tests of the emergency broadcast system were ubiquitous. They became the butt of jokes and a trope in movies about the end of the world. Now that same beeping noise has come to your phone.
"People are aware of that on their radio and their television. They're not aware of it, they're not used to having it on their cellphone," Hoever says. "In the case of an Amber Alert, it's an abducted child who's facing grave danger, and we're hoping that the public will help us in trying to find that child."
Most missing children don't trigger this alert. The child has to be in grave danger. There has to be enough information about the suspect, the car or where they are headed so that an alert will be helpful. And Hoever says the alerts are carefully targeted.
So Northern California received an alert earlier this week about an abduction in San Diego because the suspect in a double murder was believed to be headed toward Oregon. Now it seems likely that he passed within 100 miles of my house with an abducted 16-year-old girl.
"This is a very powerful tool," Hoever says. "There were 164 Amber Alerts last year covering 204 children. Five of those cases are still open."
But Hoever worries that sending these Amber Alerts to millions of mobile phones with little context could create a backlash. Right now the alerts are delivered on a dedicated frequency used only in emergencies. The messages are limited to 90 characters. There are no links allowed, no phone numbers and no pictures. It's a user interface that is hard to love.
But it is easy to simply turn this system off by changing the notification settings on your phone. Hoever hopes most Americans won't do that. But he's worried.
"When a child has been abducted, it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Hoever says. "The more eyes and ears we have out there searching for the child, the smaller the haystack becomes, and the better our chances are of safely rescuing that child."