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Cell phone technology credited with finding 3-year-old girl, system raises privacy concerns for some

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Posted at 7:14 PM, Feb 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-05 23:31:50-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Police have a new weapon in the arsenal they can use to track down missing children. It's on most cell phones, and it's largely responsible for the safe return of a 3-year-old named Bella Martinez.

W.E.A stands for Wireless Emergency Alert, and it's a technology installed on almost all wireless phones manufactured and sold in America since April of 2012.

It's a signal frequency reserved by the Federal Communications Commission specifically for emergency messages, meant to cut through a system clogged in a major emergency.

But getting a message they didn't ask for had many Utahn's wondering if the government was using their personal number without permission.

The woman who runs Utah's Amber Alerts said that's not how the technology works.

"You are automatically opted in," said Gina McNeil, going on to say the technology blankets every cell phone served by the towers within a specified region, and it does not go out to any specific numbers. In the case of Amber Alerts, that region covers the entire state of Utah.

For South Salt Lake Police Chief Jack Carruth, the unexpected message was a blessing in part for his department--and more so for the family of Bella Martinez.

"When the phones went off, I was standing in the parking lot of 7-Eleven," Carruth said. "You could tell from the look on everybody's faces, even the media, the surprise of what just happened. We quickly realized after that alert went out, what it was and how powerful it was."

Related story: Technical glitches create problems for Amber Alert issued in Utah Wednesday