National emergency text alert system a step closer

The Government is to move ahead with 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.

Mar 4, 2015
By Paul Jacques
Detective Chief Superintendent Jon McAdam

The Government is to move ahead with 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.

“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.

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

•An event or situation that 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; and

•War or terrorism that threatens serious damage to the security of the UK.

The consultation, which ran for six weeks over December and January, sought feedback on five specific questions and received 27 responses from, among others, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), BT, EE, the Information Commissioner’s Office and a number of police forces and fire and rescue services.

The majority of responses were supportive of the idea of introducing a national location-based SMS system in the UK in the future. It was viewed as a very useful tool that could potentially save lives and significantly improve current alerting arrangements in the UK.

ACPO, in particular, commented that had the system been available, it would have been used a number of times within the past year.

It was generally agreed that “at the current time, location-based SMS provides the best method for improving capabilities to alert the public”.

The proposals for a “targeted and specific exemption” in the PERC are to allow mobile network operators to process and store traffic (and location data also if necessary) for the limited purpose of operating a public emergency alert system.

The Mobile Broadband Group, representing the mobile network operators, said such a system operating on a ‘best efforts’ basis would be capable of delivering a message to almost all handsets in the area at the time.

The Government is looking to introduce these changes at the earliest opportunity. An effective information security strategy would be developed and implemented to protect the system from misuse.

The Government would also work with the mobile network operators to develop a strategy to minimise network congestion. This could involve ‘throttling’ messages on the network or sending messages in a targeted way to avoid overload.

Work with emergency responders and ACPO has concluded that, in most scenarios, the police will be best placed to issue the alert messages.

Support for a location-based SMS alert system followed the Government’s mobile alerting trials for public emergencies in autumn 2013, which involved local emergency response agencies and the mobile phone operators.

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