I received two supremely annoying Amber alerts on my phone yesterday.  They appear to be specifically designed to maximize intrusiveness, which is quite counterproductive, as the natural response is to shut down the incessant pinging as quick as you can. I’ll elaborate on why I consider that these alerts have no value (actually negative value) below.

The thought and action process to deal with the alert is modeled by the following internal dialogue: “Gaghg … what the hell is that noise!?   Grab, swipe, clear.  Thank god I wasn’t wearing my headphones!”  I got a passing glance at the message in the process, enough to see that it was an Amber alert, but no more.

This was pretty much the same process as dealing with an accidental press of that stupid red panic button on a car key fob — you know the one, it’s always triggered because you are trying to hold your keys, phone, and two dribbling travel mugs in one hand, and a backpack, garbage from the car, and a bag of groceries in the other.  Like the Amber alert, the panic button just triggers more city noise that is ignored by everybody.  It’s been 30 years since car alarms have had any value, but for some reason, instead of just getting rid of them, the manufacturers have supplied an easy way to trigger then accidentally — but I digress.

When yesterday’s second Amber alert triggered, I knew the drill and was able to silence it quickly without even having to look at it.  It was time to turn to google and see if there was a way to avoid these.  It appears there’s a way to do that on an android, but for the ancient discarded iPhone-6s that I bought for $50 USD (and probably even newer models), I appear to be out of luck.  There’s a CRTC ruling that mandates these messages, and phone providers are not allowed to provide a mechanism to disable it. They are also sent with a priority so high that their intrusiveness is off the charts.

Ironically, making the message so intrusive, means that the rush to shut it off means that you loose any chance to actually look at the message.  This is a classic example of a government policy backfire, as the policy has the exact opposite effect than the intention.

Later in the day, having struck out with google, I noticed a an #AmberAlert hash tag beside my twitter stream.  My thought was, “Perfect, there’s got to be people who know how to deal with this there”, and I posted

There were a couple helpful responses, and the rest basically conformed to expectations that one has for the worst Jon-Ronson “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed” style twitter responses:

Reading those reactions, you’d think that I’m an advocate for kidnapping and abduction, perhaps child sex trafficking, and pedophilia too.  How could I be such a piece of shit heartless fucking bastard?  Why would I want to avoid a tiny inconvenience when kids lives are at stake? Sigh.

It is striking to observe first hand how easily people are willing to take up arms to shame somebody for a cause, despite not knowing anything about their thought process, or any possible nuances that underlie the perceived offense. It’s truly thoughtless mob mentality.

Understanding that so many people are unfortunate victims of media stranger-danger fear-porn, the vitriolic reactions of the people above make some sense.  Like useless car alarms, we’ve had 30+ years of the media pumping it’s danger is everywhere story.  Fear sells exceptionally.  However, all the worry that’s been drummed into us about the black van at the school taking off with the kids has been shown again and again to be unsubstantiated.  Most kidnappings are by family members, largely related to custody issues.  Kidnapping is the conflict resolution strategy for desperate white trash trailer park inhabitants who aren’t smart nor sober enough to realize that a split second decision of that nature will only backfire and result in no access to your kids, plus considerable jail time.

Unlike car alarms, media stranger danger carping is not just an annoyance, but has massive social consequences.  I’ve now lived in three Markham subdivisions in the last 20 years, where walking the streets would make you think that you are living in a retirement community.  There are no kids playing.  The parks and the streets are empty on weekends and after school.  Kids are kept corralled in their houses, or only let out for carefully supervised play.  This fear has also become institutionalized.  I know one mother who was afraid to let her 10 year old son out to play at the park alone or try to recruit friends for unsupervised park play, because she was worried that she would be vulnerable to a child protective services induced confiscation of her son.

I know that the media and fear of CPS aren’t the only factors that are keeping kids from outdoor play.  Video games, TV, and phones now also compound the problem.  We have a couple generations of effectively lost kids, who are all experts on the characters in the 10 Netflix or YouTube series that they’ve binge watched, in countless video games, or other useless knowledge sets.  They aren’t kids who know how to  play with each other, start conversations, get into fights and make up, or even look each other in the eyes.

The AmberAlert, in my eyes, is just another conduit for media related fear porn.  It is also useless.  I’ll never know anybody who’s name flashes by in an AmberAlert, not on my phone, on media, or one one of those highway signs.  I’ll never know anybody who knows somebody related to an AmberAlert.  The chances of one of these messages being relevant is effectively zero.  I probably have a better chance of winning the lottery.  If I look at 50 Amber alerts, there will be a 50x times more chance that it is relevant: 50 x 0.00000000001 = 0 — just like buying 50 lottery tickets.

You can find plenty of Amber alert advocates that claim they are effective, but it’s not hard to find research that shows the opposite.  One such example is this “After 20 years of AMBER Alerts… Are They Worth It?” research gate interview with Timothy Griffin, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Asked about the success rate of the program, he states: “However, in my reading of the data, the number of children whose lives have been saved by AMBER Alert ranges from zero to something very close to zero.”, and as expected “These cases do not appear to typically involve apparently life-threatening abductors. Rather, they are far more often deployed in familial/custodial disputes and other cases not suggestive of life-threatening peril to the abducted child(ren).” I defer to that interview for other interesting facts, none of which were surprising to me.

The truth of the effectiveness of Amber alerts probably lies in between the glowing stats of the Amber alert advocates, and the more data driven conclusions of Prof. Griffin — but I’d guess the facts are much more strongly skewed towards the conclusions of Prof. Griffin.

Regardless of the effectiveness of the program, not allowing an opt out mechanism for these messages, nor any way to regulate priority, is a strategic mistake by the CRTC, who appears to be pushing the value of this program. Setting inappropriate priorities gets you ignored. In a corporate environment, think of the pencil pusher who sends all his ISO-9001 process conformance emails with urgent priority.  You set up a rule in short order to put all emails from that person directly in the trash.

Even if you believed that these alerts were helpful, Amber alerts depend upon an “everybody sees it” strategy that is actually crippled by making these messages mandatory and in your face. The end result is that people will delete without reading, just to silence the offending noise. The probability of even the limited possible success of the alert program is thus sabotaged. The small subset of people who will actually read the Amber alert text, and feel that it is important to do so, is made even smaller by the CRTC policy that enforces “can’t be ignored” and “can’t be prioritized”.