Fact Check

Can UK Govt. Lock Phones That Don't Reply to or Acknowledge Emergency Alert Messages?

The government announced it will test a new nationwide emergency alert on April 23, 2023.

Published Mar 22, 2023

 (Cabinet Office/Screenshot via YouTube)
Image Via Cabinet Office/Screenshot via YouTube
Claim:
If phone users in the U.K. do not acknowledge or reply to an emergency text alert test on April 23, 2023, their phones will be locked by the U.K. government for the day.
What's True

On April 23, 2023, the U.K. will implement a nationwide test of its emergency alerts service. The alert will ring for around 10 seconds on people’s phones, and they must acknowledge the alert by hitting an “OK” button before they can use other features on their devices.

What's False

Users do not have to reply to the emergency alert. While users have to acknowledge it in order to use other features on their phone, the process is much like acknowledging a “low battery” warning on a mobile device. Users also have the option to disable emergency alerts on their phones.

On March 20, 2023, internet users tweeted about the U.K. government's testing of an emergency alert system set for April 23, 2023. Many claimed that refusing to acknowledge or reply to the alert would result in their phones being locked down by the government. 

It's true that on that date, the U.K. government plans to conduct a nationwide test of the emergency alerts service. This will involve a siren-like alert being sent to smartphone users across the U.K. Alerts like this are normally used to warn the public of urgent life-threatening situations like floods, wildfires, and more. 

But the impending emergency alerts test has resulted in a number of unsubstantiated rumors. 

A Reddit user asked, "Could the April 23rd emergency alert system lock down your mobile phone?" adding, "two family members have told me that with the government's test of the emergency alarm on the 23rd of April if you fail to acknowledge it on your phone that the government will lock down your phone. They've even gone as far as to turn off some alarm settings on the phone." 

Twitter user @karma44921039 shared a video in which a man claimed, "If you don't reply to that text message, basically the use of your phone is going to be limited. So they're going to cut your phone off for the day." He added that replying would allow the government to have access to "elements" of your phone. 

These claims largely misrepresent what is a routine emergency alert method that is used numerous times by different authorities, including in states across the U.S. While smartphone users are required to acknowledge the alert message in order to use certain features on the phone, this is not as big a deal as the above posts make it out to be.

We reached out to the U.K. Cabinet Office and asked bout some of the above claims, specifically about whether phones will be locked down if users refuse to acknowledge the message, and the office directed us to its news release and FAQs

According to the FAQs on the government site, an emergency alert is meant to be a warning about potential nearby threats (emphasis, ours):

Emergency Alerts will appear on your device and you will hear a loud siren-like sound for up to 10 seconds. It will appear on your device's home screen and you must acknowledge it before you can use other features. They appear as a notification and may include telephone numbers or website links containing further information. A loud, siren-like sound and vibration will accompany the message to raise awareness of the hazard or threat.

It is indeed correct that one has to acknowledge the alert by clicking an "OK" button as illustrated in the video below. After acknowledging it, people can operate the phone normally. 

However, users do not have to reply to emergency alerts as the Twitter video claimed. According to the FAQs, "When you receive the Welcome Message you do not need to take any action. The siren will stop automatically after ten seconds. A welcome message will stay on screen until you acknowledge it, just like a 'low battery' warning." 

Users also have the ability to turn off all emergency alerts from the government on smartphones. IPhone users just have to go to their "Settings" and then to "Notifications," where they can scroll to the bottom of the screen and find the option to turn "Government Alerts" on or off. Android users also can go to their "Settings" page, then go to "Notifications" and "Wireless emergency alerts," where they can select the alerts they want to receive.  

The FAQs also pointed out that the government does not rely on personal data to send an alert: "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 Cabinet Office added that successful alert tests already took place in certain regions of the U.K., like East Suffolk and Reading. They emphasized that such alerts are "one-way" and do not collect personal data. 

Cabinet Minister Oliver Dowden told the BBC the warnings are sent in a "very targeted way" and "revolutionize our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger."

While it is indeed true that smartphone users have to acknowledge the alert by pressing "OK" before they can use other features on their phone, they do not have to reply or do anything else. Clicking "OK" on their phone is much like acknowledging a low battery notification and does not have the drastic implications that the posts are suggesting. As such we rate this claim as "Mostly False." 

Sources

"About Emergency Alerts." GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/alerts. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023.

"About Emergency and Government Alerts on IPhone." Apple Support, 27 July 2022, https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT202743. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023.

"Frequently Asked Questions About Emergency Alerts." GOV.UK, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1143765/Frequently_asked_questions_about_Emergency_Alerts.pdf.

"Launch of Life-Saving Public Emergency Alerts." GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/launch-of-life-saving-public-emergency-alerts. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023.

"Public Emergency Alerts to Be Sent to All UK Smartphones." BBC News, 19 Mar. 2023. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-64999417. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023.

"Turn Notifications on or off." Google Fi Help. https://support.google.com/fi/answer/6061927?hl=en. Accessed 22 Mar. 2023. 
 

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.