Amber crying wolf

Some parts of the USA have implemented an interesting system based on the ubiquity of mobile phones: "Amber Alert". This is something that freaks you out the first time you're watching TV and an alert triggers - the screen goes black, loud white noise erupts, and you see text scrolling across warning you of an escaped convict / missing child / rabid mountain lion in the area. The idea is that the local authorities can alert people in the area of emergency conditions that effect them directly. Since December 2012 they've added this functionality to most mobile phones, and so as well as broadcasting the alert on TV they can cause phones to emit a loud beeping and show the message as a pop-up.

Yesterday they initiated this alert across the entire state as the result of an alleged child abduction following an alleged mother and child murder in Southern California. All very laudable: except that California is big. Really big. And now they've extended the alert to Washington and Oregon. You're talking about alerting 50M people "just in case". The suspect left Boulevard, CA (near the Mexican border) four days ago. He could be anywhere. The alert just had a car make and color with California licence plate. It was no use at all in finding the suspect, especially in California and Oregon where cars of that model, color and bearing California licence plates are ten a penny. Later news announcements had photos of the suspect and children which were much more likely to trigger a response in someone who had seen them recently. The Amber alert was, in essence, annoying tens of millions of people for no benefit. Many people interviewed commented that they'd turned off the Amber Alert feature on their phone as a result, and others were aware that this would happen:

Lappin is worried that the annoying sound and seemingly random message -- the alert had no background on the kidnapping or the missing children -- will discourage people from using the notification system. "It should be for imminent danger that we should all be aware of," he said. "That's what I expect to hear when there's an earthquake, or something where I need to take action."
I'm dubious about the utility of an earthquake alert as xkcd notes, but for yes - alerts are for when you need to take action, not "just FYI".

This is a classic example of the "receiver pays" hazard that has given us email spam. Even with the best intentions, the senders of these messages are not considering the trade-off between the tiny marginal benefit accrued by alerting tens of millions of people with an unhelpful message, and the penalty of millions of pissed-off people turning off their alerts so that when an actually useful message is sent out they will miss it. Nice one.

"But please, won't someone think of the children!" I am thinking of the children - all the future kidnapped children whose alerts will be missed because of an over-eager child protection officer this time around. Perhaps that's not a hip concern, but in the long run it will save a lot more kids.

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