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UK government to loosen privacy rules 'to enable implementation of a national public emergency alert system'

The UK government is to change privacy laws to make it easier for telecoms providers to send customers text messages on behalf of the emergency services that would warn them about public emergencies.

The proposals, outlined by the Cabinet Office, would amend the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) (26-page / 389KB PDF) "to enable the future implementation of a national public emergency alert system".

The change to PECR would allow mobile network operators (MNOs) to process and store 'traffic data' and 'location data' "for the limited purpose of operating a public emergency alert system". The Cabinet Office said it plans to publish draft regulations to implement its proposal in spring next year, depending on the responses to its consultation on its plans. The consultation closes on 26 January 2015.

The Cabinet Office has said a new "targeted exemption" to the PECR rules would ensure that the public's "high demand for information" in emergency situations can be met in a lawful way.

"The restrictions in the Regulations as they currently stand would prevent communications providers from issuing alert messages on behalf of the authorities without the prior consent of users," the Cabinet Office said in its consultation paper. "In order to ensure that as many people as possible who might be affected by the emergency can be contacted, all those thought to be in the area would receive a message. Individuals will not be given the opportunity to opt-out of this… Evidence shows that the majority of people are content to receive messages that they have not signed up for, if it is about a serious emergency."

"Should a system be implemented in the future, it is anticipated that the government and mobile network operators will wish to publicise the service, before it is rolled out so that the public is made aware, that they may, on rare occasions, receive an emergency alert messages from the authorities in this way," it said.

The Cabinet Office said trials of a text message emergency alert system were conducted with MNOs in 2013 and a survey was also undertaken and found that 85% of the public would support a new mobile alert system.

Under the planned new PECR regime, the public would be sent text messages advising them of "an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom; an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom; or war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom".

Depending on what type of emergency situation arises, different bodies would be responsible for organising the issuing of the alerts. Those bodies would define the "target area" of the country in which people would be sent the messages. The Cabinet Office said restricting the messages to geographic areas would ensure that people in other parts of the UK unaffected by an emergency elsewhere would not be overloaded with unnecessary messages.

"The alert system would be location specific, which means alerts would be sent to mobile devices that are believed to be in an area that is impacted by an emergency, at that time," according to the consultation paper. "The alert message would display in the same way as an ordinary SMS message and would contain important information about what action to take and where to go for further details (this could be a website link or a radio station for example, whichever would be most appropriate for that incident)."

"Members of the public will not be required to sign up to participate in the system nor will they be required to provide any personal information to the authorities. Instead the [MNOs] would identify which devices were connected to the masts in the impacted areas at that time and use the information to send out an SMS alert to all those on the list. This activity would take place within the mobile networks and information about individual’s devices would not be available to the authorities," it said.

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