Emergency alert doesn’t let government ‘take control’ of your exact location

25 April 2023
What was claimed

The emergency alert allows the government to take control of your exact location.

Our verdict

The emergency alert system is designed to provide localised warnings about nearby danger to life, but this doesn’t mean your location is being tracked. The system uses cell towers to send a signal to all 4G and 5G phones nearby.

A video shared to Facebook claims that the emergency alert system, tested in the UK on 23 April will allow unnamed actors to “take control of your exactly [sic] location”. 

The caption of the video says: “Turn it off people. They are taking control of your exactly [sic] location.” 

It’s not clear who the post is referring to when it uses the word “they”, but as the new Emergency Alert system is being launched by the UK government it appears that the post refers to government surveillance. 

This claim is overlaid onto a clip of television presenter Philip Schofield talking about the emergency alert system on an episode of the television show This Morning, demonstrating how the alert would sound and look. 

In the clip Mr Schofield says: “What this is going to be used for, and it looks like it’s sort of geotagged so [...] it’s going to be localised and if you live by a river that’s about to flood then your phone in that area will say ‘the river’s about to flood, get out of your house’.”

The caption on the video appears to imply that through the emergency alert system, the government will be able to track an individual’s exact location in order to provide localised advice. 

But while the emergency alerts will work on a localised basis, meaning they can warn people in close proximity to danger, they are not designed to track individuals’ locations. 

Misinformation about what data is being collected may lead to unnecessary alarm and may cause people to opt out of the alerts and therefore risk not being warned about nearby dangers in future. The Facebook post encourages people to turn the alert off.

False claims of this nature were extremely prevalent online in the weeks and days ahead of the test alert being sent, and we have written about them many times

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What are emergency alerts? 

Emergency Alerts are a new government service that will warn people via their phones or tablets if there is a nearby “danger to life” such as severe flooding or fire. 

Only emergency services and government departments, agencies and public bodies dealing with emergencies are able to send the alerts, which are intended to give advice about how to stay safe. 

The system was tested on 23 April on devices that used 4G or 5G networks, though some people—including some Three UK customers—reported that they did not receive the alert. 

Do the emergency alerts mean the government can monitor your location? 

The Cabinet Office has previously confirmed to Full Fact that the alerts do not collect personal data, including whether phones are active or where they are located. 

In an information sheet about the alerts, the government said: “The system uses the cell tower your phone is connected to. When an alert is triggered, all towers in the area will broadcast the alert. 

“To do this the Government does not need to know the specific location or personal data on your device.” 

The government website also describes the alert as “one-way” and confirms that the alert does not require the government to know any individual phone numbers. 

This means that while government agencies or emergency services can target cell towers in a specific area (for example, where there is a flood warning), they do not collect data on which phones in these locations received the alert.

Image courtesy of Daria Nepriakhina

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