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UK government launches mobile phone emergency alert pilot

The UK government is testing an emergency alert system that sends messages to mobile phones to inform the population of national emergencies.

O2, Vodafone and EE are all working with the Cabinet Office to roll out the pilot scheme that will see around 50,000 people receive the messages, which will be marked as “test” to avoid confusion.

“Ensuring that local areas receive quick accurate information in the event of an emergency is crucial to an effective response and the information that we receive from these tests will help us develop systems that local emergency responders will be able to use in the future,” said Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office.

The three pilot areas are Easingwold in North Yorkshire, Leiston in Suffolk, and Glasgow city centre with testing due to get underway later this month and continue into October and November. Anyone that receives the messages is invited to provide feedback with local focus groups planned in each of the three areas.

There are two systems being tested by the government with one based on SMS text messages and the other using cell broadcast [CB] technology. CB messages can be sent via a dedicated network that isn’t used for calls and texts with only network operators able to send them. SMS messages, on the other hand, can be sent by anyone and some are worried it will be open to abuse.

"Spoofability will go through the roof if they use “plain Jane” text messages," Chester Wisniewski, senior advisor at Sophos, told the BBC. "Anything that carries the gravitas of a national alerts system will be a target for hackers. They are opening themselves up to vulnerabilities."

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith moved to reassure the public by telling the BBC that the authorities "will be vigilant for any sign of abuse in the trial". The technology will only be used when there is a real threat to life or property, which includes severe weather, pandemics, and attacks on critical infrastructure.

Image Credit: Flickr (sgroi)