Cell phone technology credited with finding 3-year-old girl, system raises privacy concerns for some

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Police have a new weapon in the arsenal they can use to track down missing children. It's on most cell phones, and it's largely responsible for the safe return of a 3-year-old named Bella Martinez.

W.E.A stands for Wireless Emergency Alert, and it's a technology installed on almost all wireless phones manufactured and sold in America since April of 2012.

It's a signal frequency reserved by the Federal Communications Commission specifically for emergency messages, meant to cut through a system clogged in a major emergency.

But getting a message they didn't ask for had many Utahn's wondering if the government was using their personal number without permission.

The woman who runs Utah's Amber Alerts said that's not how the technology works.

"You are automatically opted in," said Gina McNeil, going on to say the technology blankets every cell phone served by the towers within a specified region, and it does not go out to any specific numbers. In the case of Amber Alerts, that region covers the entire state of Utah.

For South Salt Lake Police Chief Jack Carruth, the unexpected message was a blessing in part for his department--and more so for the family of Bella Martinez.

"When the phones went off, I was standing in the parking lot of 7-Eleven," Carruth said. "You could tell from the look on everybody's faces, even the media, the surprise of what just happened. We quickly realized after that alert went out, what it was and how powerful it was."

Related story: Technical glitches create problems for Amber Alert issued in Utah Wednesday

4 comments

  • BethAnn

    I think this is a great tool to have. Stop complaining about your stupid privacy and put a missing child ahead of your self, I bet you would not mind if it was your child missing. I was at the grocery store when the store filled up with the alert coming across everyone’s mb phones. I looked on my way home and had my kids also keeping their eyes apeal.

  • avargo

    It’s an EMERGENCY alert. I think it is great, although it scared the heck out of me and my husband until we realized what it was. How does it affect privacy in any way? Seriously people, paranoia is getting out of control.

  • sally mathews

    If there wasn’t an amber alert that little girl wouldn’t of been found or if she was found without the amber alert theout come probably wouldn’t have been the same as it was with the amber alert.

  • Tracy Mascarenas

    I thought it was amazing. Usually the amber alert is only seen by people at home watching TV this was seen by everyone in a vehicle so everyone who might actually see the suspect vehicle so yes very effective . Good job

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