Google's android alert failed to notify people of Turkey earthquakes: BBC investigation

The earthquakes caused mass destruction and over 50,000 deaths in Turkey.
Sejal Sharma
Devastation after Turkey earthquakes
Devastation after Turkey earthquakes


As people woke up on the morning of February 6, 2023, across Turkey and Israel, little did they know that their day would be marred by a succession of catastrophic events.

Around 4 AM, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck southern and central parts of Turkey and northern and western Syria. This was followed by another jolt of 7.7 magnitude around lunchtime.

Over 50,000 people died in Turkey, while over 8,500 died in Israel. The entire globe was shaken.

The technology to predict an earthquake doesn’t exist yet, but there are earthquake early warning systems that detect ground motion as soon as an earthquake begins and quickly send alerts that a tremor is on its way, giving people crucial seconds to prepare.

Google's earthquake warning system, which comes pre-installed in Android phones, was one of those systems. But it failed to get to many Turkish residents at the time of February's deadly tremor, found a BBC Newsnight investigation.

The Android system largely failed to inform

The team visited three cities in the earthquake zone and spoke to hundreds of people, but couldn’t find anyone who had received an initial warning. However, they found that there were a handful of people who received a warning for the second seismic hit.

Turkey faces a high risk of exposure to earthquakes due to the meeting of several large tectonic plates. Google in its 2020 blog had promised that Android phones will act like mini seismometers, thus forming the world’s largest earthquake detection network. The system detects tremors of 4.5 and above.

“An early warning can help people prepare for shaking, but the public infrastructure to detect and alert everyone about an earthquake is costly to build and deploy,” said Google. “We saw an opportunity to use Android to provide people with timely, helpful earthquake information when they search, as well as a few seconds warning to get themselves and their loved ones to safety if needed.”

80% of phones in Turkey are Android

"If Google makes a promise, or makes an implicit promise, to deliver a service like earthquake early warning, then to me, it raises the stakes," said Professor Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, in an interview with BBC.

BBC also spoke to Google's product lead on the system, Micah Berman, who insisted that the warning system had worked. "We are confident that this system fired and sent alerts.” But the company could never give evidence to substantiate their claim.

When the system sends an alert on the Android phone, it takes up the whole screen and displays a warning to "drop, cover, hold" and is accompanied by a loud alarm.

Google's android alert failed to notify people of Turkey earthquakes: BBC investigation
A screenshot of the warning on an Android phone


Usually when an earthquake, even of the smallest magnitude, strikes a city, it’s followed by a huge clamor on social media. But not a lot of people posted after the first earthquake hit Turkey. Google shared with the BBC team a document with only 13 social media posts they had found of people talking of a warning that day. 

BBC corresponded with those people and found that most hadn’t received an alert for the first earthquake and those who had received an alert weren’t very sure if it was for the first or the second hit.

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