UK emergency phone alerts have citizens concerned about privacy, here's what you should know

On Sunday 23 April, 2023, there will be a nationwide emergency alert ringing on all phones in the UK. You can turn off the alert, but we'll explain why you shouldn't.

The UK will emit a nationwide emergency alert on Sunday 23 April 2023
© Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash
The UK will emit a nationwide emergency alert on Sunday 23 April 2023

The UK government is launching its new Emergency Alerts service, which will warn those who want to participate in the trial of potential life-threatening dangers around them. In case of an emergency, your phone will receive an alert, which will also contain advice on how to stay safe.

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On the government official website, you can learn the Emergency Alerts service does not require your personal phone number or address to send you an alert.

You may receive an alert in case of dangers threatening your life happening in your area. For example, severe flooding, fires, or extreme weather. These alerts can only be sent by emergency services or official government bodies who deal specifically with emergencies.

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What should you expect to happen during an emergency alert?

Your phone will emit a loud siren-like sound, even if it set on silent mode. Your phone will also vibrate, and read out the alert. This way, everyone can be informed of the alert, including people with disabilities. The alert is rather quick, as it will only last up to 10 seconds.

It will also include a link or phone number to get more information from the government. You do not need to turn on your location on your phone. Alerts will be sent out in English, and also in Welsh if you are located in Wales.

Twitter users' concerns over privacy

Some Twitter users are very angry with the initiative, calling it a sign of a 'dystopian surveillance society'.

Another user commented:

But I don’t want you to send me this signal. It is an invasion of my privacy. There is nothing in law, I believe, that requires me to allow my government to utilise my personal possessions without my permission. If there is I would be obliged if you would enlighten me. Thank you.

However, others have tried to explain that the government will not get access to your personal information through the emergency alerts.

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Will the emergency alert violate your privacy?

And they're right.

Your privacy will not be endangered in any way by the Emergency Alerts service, as it doesn't require your personal location to send out an alert. The system will broadcast the emergency alert to all cell towers in the UK, which then will allow you to receive the notification. Therefore, there is no direct contact because the government service and your phone.

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.

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Here's why you shouldn't turn off your alert

If you wish not to receive these alerts, you can always opt out of them in your device settings. Another solution is to simply turn off your phone, as alerts can still ring if you are on silent mode. You can also put your phone on flight mode.

However, you probably should not turn off the emergency alert since it could potentially save your life.

The Unified World Communications website warns:

You can opt out of the system in your phone’s settings, just search for “emergency alerts”, and turn off ‘severe alerts’ and ‘extreme alerts’. You will not receive alerts if your device is turned off or in airplane mode.
However, these alerts are potentially life-saving so we recommend you keep them switched on.

Moreover, the BBC confirms that the emergency alerts will not make it possible to access your personal data, as they will go through cell towers the same way as a text message does.

The Cabinet Office says the service will be secure, free to receive and will not collect personal information such as someone's telephone number, identity or location.

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Sources used: About Emergency Alerts

Independent: Government to test emergency alert system in nationwide test sent to mobile phones

Unified World Communications: Emergency Alerts System Test - 23rd April

BBC: Public emergency alerts to be sent to all UK smartphones

Red alert issued for millions of Gmail users in the UK, check if your phone is already affected Red alert issued for millions of Gmail users in the UK, check if your phone is already affected