Government to move forward with national emergency text alert system

The Cabinet Office has proposed amending the Privacy and Electronic Communications legislation to implement a national mobile alert system

The Cabinet Office has published proposals to amend the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (PECR) to pave the way for the introduction of a national SMS mobile alert system, following a recent consultation.

The consultation, which ran for six weeks over Christmas and New Year, sought comment on the proposal and received a total of 27 responses from, among others, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), BT, EE, the Information Commissioner’s Office and Ofcom, as well as a number of individual police forces and fire and rescue services.

Based on the premise effective communications between the authorities and the general public during times of national emergency is crucial, the consultation asked five specific questions seeking input on the costs and benefits, and whether or not other parts of the law would need to be changed.

The Cabinet Office said the majority of responses were supportive of the idea of introducing a national, location-based SMS alert system for the UK, adding that it was viewed as a useful tool which could potentially save lives.

Notably, the Acpo said had such a system been available it would have been used a number of times in the past 12 months.

The government’s proposals would create a UK-wide system that would be used in three defined scenarios:

  • An event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the UK;
  • An event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment in a place in the UK;
  • War or terrorism which threatens serious damage to the security of the UK.

A similar system to that proposed by the government is already in use in the US. The Wireless Emergency Alert system, a collaboration between a number of US government agencies, is used to send out alerts issued by the White House.

The system is also used for alerts involving imminent threat to life – usually natural disaster or weather-related – and America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Responses alerts in cases of child abduction.

The US system, widely deployed since 2012, has been used frequently, notably to issue shelter-in-place alerts to residents of Boston following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent city-wide manhunt.

Following the consultation, the government set out its intention to move forward with its preferred option and will now work with the relevant bodies to hammer out various details.

These include, but are not limited to, exemptions and what defines an emergency; data processing and privacy; message format; device targeting; network congestion and throttling; criteria for testing of the system; and the possibility of allowing members of the public to opt-out.

“Alerting the public in a quick and effective manner that they are in the vicinity of an emergency – and informing them about what action they need to take – has an important role in limiting the impact of that emergency,” said the government.

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I'd imagine it is widely agreed that this is a step in the right direction and is something which is overdue for the UK. However, I would question whether the right technology has been chosen; cell broadcast would have obvious benefits over SMS, and if SMS is to be used, will the Government gain access to an up to date data source to ensure citizens receive the alerts? Relying on the mobile vendors billing records (which is proposed) may well be a flawed approach. The Government will also need to put a great deal of thought into the communication exercise they employ to support this initiative. Citizens receiving an unsolicited SMS in their already busy message inbox, could result in a very poor response and potentially put lives in danger. Security safeguards, I hope, are also high on the agenda. If the government can deploy effectively, they will have created an excellent vehicle for the spread misinformation - the consequences of which one would not want to consider.

I am disappoint that as a nation we have had not had the vision to come up with a more innovative and effective solution. I would also be interested what the proposed delivery costs are for this project and why the Government has not engaged with the UK SME sector for a potential solution?

Tony Watson
CEO - Callmy Ltd