Here’s an interesting case from the place where technology and law enforcement meet. Earlier this week, a young boy was abducted from his foster care agency in Harlem, by his mother, who was “bipolar and had shown recent outbreaks of violence”. For the first time since its inception last year, the national wireless emergency alert system was utilized in NYC, sending out an Amber Alert text message to an unknown number of cellphone users in the area. The text message included the license number, make and color of the mother’s car, and police say it was thanks to the message that the boy was located.

After taking a moment to be thankful that the child was found in “good condition”, let’s think about the widespread dissemination of the Alert. The New York Times discussed the story:

While many people saw the value in getting the alert, many others were not as embracing, recounting their panic, confusion and irritation on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Dozens of readers vented their frustration over the unexpected early wake-up on The New York Times’s Web site, with one man suggesting it might have annoyed people to the point that they would turn off future alerts, and others questioning whether an alert would really help find the child. wrote about some other reactions from New Yorkers:

“I literally thought the city was under attack,” one Twitter user wrote . “Scariest wake up ever.” “All of NYC woken up by terrifying noise,” another posted . “Thought it was carbon monoxide alarm, was gripped by panic over how to save my cats.” Some tweeted that they thought there was an alien attack, a nuclear bomb, and all sorts of other disasters.

Here’s a description of how the process worked:

The New York Police Department asked the State Police on Tuesday night to issue an Amber Alert, which was initially broadcast on television, radio and the Internet. It was transmitted, through the wireless emergency network, to cellphone users in New York City and surrounding counties in the early hours on Wednesday after investigators discovered that the child might be riding in a car.

Privacy advocates aren’t too crazy about being automatically opted into the network, although there is the option to voluntarily “unsubscribe” from all but the top-level alert messages. A staff lawyer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggested that “the big issue here is who controls your device,” as unsolicited, unexpected messages in the wee hours – from the authorities, no less – seemingly gives them more control than many are comfortable with.

While it’s unlikely that anyone would be overtly unsympathetic to the plight of a missing child, the use of the wireless emergency alert system is seen by many as excessive. Will similar alerts go out for every missing child? Are there plans to determine when the alert goes out? Will it be used for other crimes? Is it a necessary, useful tool, or an irritating case of “government spam”?