UK emergency alert system – what are the Privacy Implications?

On Sunday 23rd April 2023, there will be a nationwide emergency alert ringing on all phones in the UK.

Ministers said the system would send alerts to 4G and 5G phones about imminent life-threatening weather events, such as extreme floods or wildfires. The “broadcast” system could also be used to warn about security threats, including terrorist attacks.

The government said on Thursday that a UK-wide test of the Emergency Alerts system would take place at 3pm BST on 23rd April. A message will appear on the home screen of mobile phones and the device will emit a “loud siren-like sound, even if it is set in silent,” while vibrating for up to 10 seconds.

Phone users need only swipe away the message or click “OK” on the screen, the government said. There is no need for users to register their number.

In the UK, alerts could be used to urge residents threatened by flooding or wildfires to evacuate. During last summer’s heatwave, when temperatures reached a record-breaking 40C, England’s fire services dealt with over 50 wildfires a day — four times the number in 2021.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Dowden MP, said: “Getting this system operational with the national test means we have another tool in our toolkit to keep the public safe in life-threatening emergencies. It could be the sound that saves your life.”

Officials said that mobile broadcasting technology meant the new system could be limited to providing warnings to 90 per cent of mobile phones in a defined geographic area, and would contain clear instructions about how to stay safe.

The alarm will work on any phone, but the system will only be used when there is an immediate risk to life, so people may not receive an alert for months or years, they added.

Is this classed a breach of privacy?

It is no wonder that many people are questioning if this is a breach of their privacy. However, the Government says there are no privacy implications, as its emergency alerts don’t collect any personal data. The Government is not using individual phone numbers to send the emergency alerts. Instead, a signal is sent to all compatible mobiles in areas of risk. Cell towers in the impacted locations will broadcast the warning message to nearby devices. This means phone numbers and personal data is not collected, and the phones location will not be tracked.

Also, the communication is only one-way, meaning the government can send you an alert, but cannot get any type of information from your phone. The service has also said it will not collect personal data from the alerts. These emergency alerts are essential as you can receive them up to 10 seconds after they were sent, whereas text messages can take days to reach you when sent out to the entire population.

Prior to the nationwide test, the system has been successful in East Suffolk and Reading. About 88% of people in these places have said they wish to take part in the national Emergency Alerts service. These alerts will be extremely rare as they focus on direct dangers to life. Today, with flooding and wildfires happening more often than before, these alerts can be of national service.

Can you opt out?

People who do not wish to receive the alerts will be able to opt out in their device settings, but officials hope the life-saving potential of the messages means that users will keep them on.

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”.

What shall I do when I receive the National Test Message on April 23?

The alert will be a test ‘Welcome Message’, the Government confirmed. Therefore, you do not need to take any action. The siren will stop automatically after ten seconds but the message will stay on screen until you acknowledge it.

What happens if I receive a real emergency alert?

The Government advice is to stop what you’re doing, assuming it is safe to do so, and follow the instructions outlined in the alert. If you are driving, do not look at or touch your phone until it is safe.

The alerts will only ever come from the government or emergency services, and they will include the details of the area affected and provide instructions about how best to respond.

The government said the alerts are secure, free to receive, and one-way, insisting they do not reveal anyone’s location or collect personal data.

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