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Blue Alerts: Security Theater and Copaganda

Last week, Floridians were startled by an emergency alert sent to all of our cell phones. Typically when this sort of alert happens, it’s an Amber Alert, which means a child was abducted. In Florida, we sometimes also receive Silver Alerts, which indicates that an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient has gone missing. (Florida has a lot of old and retired people.)

To my surprise, it was neither of those things. Instead, it was a Blue Alert–a type of alert I had never seen before. Apparently nobody else had seen it either, because a local news site published a story explaining what Blue Alerts even are for their confused readers.

What’s a Blue Alert?

A Blue Alert is an involuntary message, communicated over the emergency alert infrastructure, to perform the equivalent of a Twitter call-out thread on a suspected cop-killer or cop-abductor.

Blue Alerts are opt-out, not opt-in, and you cannot turn them off without also disabling other types of emergency alerts. Even on newer phones which offer greater granularity with the types of emergency alerts to receive, there is no specific flag to disable Blue Alerts and leave all the other types turned on.

Blue Alerts Are Security Theater

Blue Alerts do not provide any meaningful benefit towards public safety, and actually make us less safe.

If someone just killed a cop, do you really expect random untrained citizens to get involved? We already know how that worked out for the armed and trained professionals.

If law enforcement wants an uncritical platform to broadcast their lies and omissions with no questions (or only softball questions that presuppose the frame that they’re telling the truth), they already have every major media outlet in their locale. They don’t need the Blue Alerts to get the word out, or to advertise a cash reward for information leading to an arrest. They already have channels for that.

Why are Blue Alerts a thing? The best reason I’ve been able to discern is: Because the surviving families of deceased law enforcement officers want to feel like their loss is taken seriously. The need to “do something”–even when that something is meaningless, or even harmful, but still looks like a solution–is the essence of Security Theater.

But Blue Alerts aren’t as harmless as a mere expression of sheer self-entitlement over the rest of us unimportant proles.

Blue Alerts actually serve to make our society less safe by increasing Alarm Fatigue, which negatively impacts public safety by making people less focused when an alert comes in.

Alternatively, some people will actively disable Blue Alerts to prevent alarm fatigue. But, as stated above, there’s no way to disable them in isolation without also disabling other emergency alerts, which puts them at risk of being uninformed of an actual severe or extreme emergency.

Making the public less safe goes against the very predicate for why police forces exist in most states.

Grrrr
Just say NO to Security Theater!
(Art by Khia.)

Blue Alerts Are Copaganda (in Practice)

This one needs a bit of explaining. I’m going to focus on Florida, because it’s familiar to me.

Blue Alerts were created in Florida in 2011 via an executive order by then-governor Rick Scott. According to Spectrum News 9, only three alerts have been issued since the system was created.

(Anecdote: I’ve had my own mobile phone since 2008 and never once received one until last week.)

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement identifies four criteria for a Blue Alert to be issued:

  1. A law enforcement officer must have been: seriously injured; killed by a subject(s); or become missing while in the line of duty under circumstances causing concern for the law enforcement officer’s safety.
  2. The investigating agency must determine that the offender(s) poses a serious risk to the public or to other law enforcement officers, and the alert may help avert further harm or assist in the apprehension of the suspect.
  3. A detailed description of the offender’s vehicle or other means of escape (vehicle tag or partial tag) must be available for broadcast to the public.
  4. The local law enforcement agency of jurisdiction must recommend issuing the Blue Alert.

That fourth requirement gives law enforcement a lot of discretion in deciding whether or not to issue a Blue Alert.

That power to arbitrarily decide whether or not to send one might explain why, despite having 2 cops killed in 2020 and 4 cops killed in 2018 due to shooting incidents (both in Florida alone, and I do not have access to data earlier than 2018), a Blue Alert wasn’t emitted for any of those incidents.

Gee, I wonder if something else could have happened last week to prompt law enforcement to exercise a rarely-used tool in their toolbelt?

What Happened Before June 2021’s Blue Alert

I’m not particularly clued into the specific events of the shooting that issued the Blue Alert, but there was a particularly embarrassing incident for law enforcement in Florida the day before that was starting to gain a lot of attention.

Florida Highway Patrol tased a teenage boy in his girlfriend’s yard. And it was starting to get national media coverage.

Content Warning: Do not watch this video if violence–especially police violence–might cause you severe discomfort or trigger an involuntary psychological response to past trauma:

I do not have, nor will I claim to have, any specific evidence that proves that the cops used the shooting in Volusia County, Florida as an excuse to trigger the surprising Blue Alert to confuse and distract the populace.

However, all cops are bastards, so I certainly suspect them of doing such a thing to cover for their buddies.

And since their mere suspicion is generally sufficient justification for cops to violate the Fourth Amendment with wild abandon, it’s only fair that my suspicion be sufficient to launch an investigation into their motives.

Just kidding!

We know the system is stilted in cops’ favor, which is why there’s a Blue Alert when a cop gets killed, but not a Stasi Alert when cops decide to murder an American citizen.

(Art by Khia.)

In Conclusion

Blue Alerts are not actionable for their recipients, and make the public less safe. Additionally, they provide the police yet another propaganda tool that I suspect they already used once to distract the public from an embarrassing news story.

Here’s what needs to happen:

  1. Mobile Operating System developers need to create a dedicated toggle to disable Blue Alerts without disabling other emergency alerts.
  2. These toggles need to be easier to find and configure.

These aren’t political solutions, merely technological ones, but as a security engineer, that’s all I can offer.

By Soatok

Security engineer with a fursona. Ask me about dholes or Diffie-Hellman!

2 replies on “Blue Alerts: Security Theater and Copaganda”

It is incredibly frustrating to see otherwise useful systems for public good be misused for political will. It’s telling that there’s also been stories recently where cops have been playing music from their phones when recorded to try to trip up YouTube’s ContentID and make it all that much harder to share (though how much copyright is actually a public good at this point is debatable too). Not only are the police corrupt, but they’re finding new and innovative ways to be corrupt! How exciting!

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