One of the Amber Alert signs located on California's major highways, displaying the alert for Hannah Anderson's abduction. (Sources: LA Times, PIX11)
This weekend, the drama involving a kidnapping of a California teenager came to a possibly television-worthy conclusion: FBI agents found kidnapper James DiMaggio and victim Hannah Anderson in a campsite in the Idaho wilderness. Following a tense confrontation, DiMaggio was killed by an agent, and Anderson was rescued and returned home. While many speculate on the motives of DiMaggio, and are joyous over Anderson's return, many are also trumpeting the success of a more widespread deployment of the Amber Alert system, an alert system designed to notify people of missing children shortly after abduction.
The problem, however, is that the Amber Alert system did not work as intended. The system essentially proved more an annoyance than an aid, especially with the first use of the Amber Alert text-messaging system. The text-message system, now an opt-out feature on all new smartphones, sends a text with a distinct siren-like ringtone when an Amber Alert is activated. Many Californians were rudely surprised at the first Amber Alert text, especially those that did not have their phones on silent or vibrate, when it went out on August 6.
What makes this thing a problem is that James DiMaggio was likely sent a text message as well, warning him that he was being hunted, and furthermore telling him where Amber Alerts were activated. This allowed him plenty of time to divert from what many suspected was his original plan of traveling to British Columbia, going to Idaho instead, where there was no Amber Alert in effect. Furthermore, because the Amber Alerts were being reported on major highways, DiMaggio could simply move to the backroads, where people are likely less aware of the situation and less able to detect him.
The Amber Alert only resulted in one tip that possibly aided investigators, suggesting that a car matching DiMaggio's may have been around the California/Oregon border the evening of August 6. The events that led to Hannah Anderson's rescue started only after a group of horseback riders chanced upon a couple matching DiMaggio and Anderson, looking and acting completely out of place, in the Idaho wilderness, and then saw their faces on the news. The Amber Alert for Idaho did not go into effect until after investigators received this tip. Had this chance encounter never happened, DiMaggio and Anderson may have been able to escape capture.
In essence, the Amber Alert system failed in this situation. One has to question, before the text-messaging system goes into more widespread, whether people will be able to even effectively use it, let alone whether they actually bother to heed it. Chances are, people will simply start to ignore the texts as they become more frequent. That will prove to be the system's undoing.