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Guest Editorial: Cell alerts work, raise amber flags

The siren heard around the state last week -- blaring from nearly every cell phone from Worthington to Warroad -- was a siren that led to a joyous, sigh-of-relief, safe return of an abducted 8-month-old baby boy.

It signaled a moment of true historic significance. It was the first time an AMBER Alert was sent to cell phones in Minnesota via Wireless Emergency Alert. And it was the first time in the U.S. a cell phone alert led directly to the safe recovery of a child, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

So we can all cheer that success.

But what did we think -- really think -- that moment when our cell phones suddenly blasted an alarm never heard before, flashed a message with a large exclamation point and bright red colors never seen before, and delivered a cryptic and creepy message? "AMBER Alert: check local media. LIC/242 GAU (MN) 2002 Red Kia Sportage," the message read.

The moment was a bit alarming and more than a bit big-brother intrusive. There was more anxiety than there were answers.

But we can get used to it.

The National Weather Service started issuing similar alerts last summer called Imminent Threat Alerts. The most recent in Minnesota went out earlier this month when blizzard conditions were hammering the western and northwestern parts of the state.

Minnesota phone users also can expect non-weather alerts about emergency situations like hazardous-material spills, for example. In addition, the warning system can be used by the president during a national crisis. The Department of Homeland Security has been working with top wireless carriers, all of whom are on board, to get the alert system off the ground.

Last week's AMBER Alert turned out well. A teenager -- for once let's be thankful they're on their dang phones all the time -- spotted the vehicle and the plate number and told her father, who called police. Minneapolis officers went to the home where the vehicle was located, found the child unharmed in the basement and made an arrest.

The woman in cuffs was an acquaintance of the boy's mother.

But you don't have to be George Orwell or even unnaturally paranoid to see the ominous potential for an abuse of this system -- or for its misuse, especially by an overreaching government.

"Because (Wireless Emergency Alerts) are still relatively new," Kris Eide, Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in a statement last week, "now is a great time to sit down with your children and older parents and talk about this new alert system."

Let's also keep on talking about the system -- and about how it's being used. Or misused, heaven forbid.

This editorial was originally published by the Duluth News Tribune, a Forum Communications Co. publication.