Emergency Alerts have existed in other countries for a while, and the UK government has announced that it will also implement an Emergency Alert system to protect UK citizens. Users will receive emergency alerts on their phone to warn them about life-threatening situations, including: fires, severe flooding, extreme weather, and terrorist attacks. However, this has created some speculations as to data protection rights, whether they breach any laws, and if they are safe for users.
Does it breach data protection rights?
The UK abides by the Data Protection Act 2018, and according to GOV.UK, it means that “everyone responsible for using personal data has to follow strict rules called ‘data protection principles’.” This controls how personal data is used by different organisations, including the government, making sure that data is not exploited.
However, this does not apply here as the Emergency Alert system does not use any personal data to send emergency alerts. According to the Cabinet Office, personal data about a user’s device or specific location will not be collected or shared, and its privacy notice states that “emergency alerts are broadcast from mobile phone masts to every compatible phone and tablet within range. The sender does not need to know your mobile number or any other personal data to send you an alert. No one will collect or share data about you, your phone, or your location when you receive an emergency alert.” As such, the Emergency alert does not breach data protection rights. For more information: https://www.gov.uk/alerts/privacy-notice
Does it breach any other laws?
The Emergency Alert does not appear to breach any current laws or regulations, and its [stated] intended use is only to warn citizens about dangerous situations. Emergency alerts will only be sent by the emergency services, government departments, agencies, and public bodies that deal with emergencies.
Are they safe for users?
These alerts are intended to protect citizens by acting as a warning alert for dangerous situations, but there are situations which can make emergency alerts unsafe. These include driving or riding when you get an alert, if you are at risk of domestic abuse, and cyber fraud.
- If you are driving or riding when you get an alert
Do not read or respond to the emergency alert, and find somewhere safe and legal to stop before reading the message. Do not try to turn off the alarm and risk losing control of the car. Remember, it is illegal to use a hand-held device which driving or riding.
Find somewhere safe and legal to stop before reading the message, or tune into live radio to hear about the alert.
- If you are at risk of domestic abuse
If you have an emergency or hidden phone, it is advisable to turn off any mobile devices that you wish to keep hidden. The emergency alert is intended to attract attention, so to prevent this alarm you can switch off your phone completely, or put it on aeroplane mode. For more information, check out this video produced by the charity Refuge: https://youtu.be/I2MBcHwmiy8
This has caused debate as to the safety of domestic abuse victims, considering that some victims have safe phones that they keep hidden, but now are at risk of not hearing emergency alerts if there is danger.
You can opt out by searching settings for “emergency alerts” and turning off “severe alerts” and “extreme alerts”.
- Cyber fraud
There is a possibility that fraudsters and scammers will use this as an opportunity to take advantage of those who may be misinformed or not as aware about how the Emergency Alert system works. This is why it is important to keep your eyes peeled, stay informed, and remember that no action is required such as downloading an app or providing information.
Did the emergency test go to plan?
Millions of people across the UK received the emergency alert test on the 23rd of April, scheduled at 3pm, but there were some problems, such as the alert going off a minute or so earlier, and some users not receiving a message or any sound from the alert. This is because the alerts went through different infrastructures used by mobile operators, which can mean some differences in how the alerts went off. The government also confirmed that the Welsh language national emergency alert detected a spelling error. The Cabinet Office has said it will review the outcome of the UK-wide emergency alert test, so that it is improved for future use.
Overall, the Emergency Alert system is not intended to exploit or harm users, and does not breach data protection rights or any other laws. There are some risks to users who are driving and get distracted, to domestic abuse victims, and those who are more vulnerable to cyber fraud attacks, so the Government and the news has given some advice, but we will monitor if anything else will be done in the future to minimise these risks.
The Cabinet Office will currently be reviewing how successful the UK-wide emergency alert test was, but it is almost certain that emergency alerts will become a new norm in the UK.