FEMA Test Of Cell Phone ‘Presidential Alerts’ Rescheduled To October 3rd

Your phone won't be beeping on Thursday after all.

Last week, I noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be conducting a test of the cell phone alert system that was established on Thursday, late yesterday it was announced that the test has been delayed two weeks:

Plenty of Americans aren’t terribly keen to be receiving text messages from the president, even in an emergency.

And they’ll have a reprieve, if only briefly.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system, announced that the test that had been scheduled for Thursday will be pushed back to Oct. 3, citing the “ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence.”

The initial announcement was met with concerns from social media users who stated that a direct message from President Donald Trump to the nation could be used for political purposes, similar to how he uses his official Twitter page.

One online user responded to FEMA’s announcement via Twitter, saying, “We don’t need presidential alerts! We already have public emergency alert messaging. This is not necessary!”

Many also went on to raise the issue of the alert being mandatory, with no way to opt of it. One user even messaged Verizon Wireless, one of the 100 wireless service companies that have agreed to provide the alert to their network, asking how she can avoid receiving it.

Some users even threatened to cancel their cellphone service, while others said they would protest the test by turning their phones off, creating the hashtag #GoDark920 in response to the original test date.

Stephen Cobb, a security researcher at ESET, a technology security company, tweeted via his verified account that the blowback against the test indicated the broader frustration with the president.

“This POTUS is so bad that folks are prepared to forgo the potential benefits of a national alert system – which already exists on radio and TV – because it is hard to believe Trump will not abuse it.”

Jeramie Scott, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, also said that without more information on the breadth and reach of this system, there could be a risk of abuse due to it’s “intrusive” nature.

According to Scott, the WEA is an intrusive alert system because it stops all forms of communications to your mobile device while the alert is processing. The Emergency Alert System (EAS), which he deems less intrusive, displays emergency messages on T.V. and radio.

“With a system that affects so many people, it’s important that we step back and have a conversation about when such a system should be used and make sure there are safeguards put into place when such a system is abused,” Scott said. “We need to discuss what limits can be imposed to prevent the president from abusing this authority.”

(…)

However, those large volumes of public concerns have been offset by excitement from emergency management workers.

“I think it is an outstanding tool in the toolbox,” said Nick Crossley, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers in the U.S. “It is a great way to get notification to anybody who has a cellphone.”

Crossley, who is also the director for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency in Hamilton County, Ohio, said that unlike local emergency alerts, mobile users cannot turn off the president’s wireless alerts, making it more effective in life-threatening emergencies.

“The challenge with these sort of alerts is that very rarely is the federal government sending these nationwide alerts,” Crossley said. “This responsibility usually falls to the local emergency systems, but if you have your alerts turned off, you won’t be prepared.”

As I stated in my original post on this test, while I understand some of the concerns, and recognize that many of the comments about the President being able to tweet at everyone is mostly meant to be in jest, I think that, on the whole, a system like this does make sense. In practice, it’s really not any different from the Emergency Broadcast System that we’ve all been used to for decades now, and which has frequently been used in local areas to notify television viewers and people listening on the radio of important localized threats such as tornadoes. This system, which is built into pretty much every phone manufactured since 2015, allows users to turn off most alerts, including Amber Alerts and localized weather alerts (although that’s one I would think it would be wise to keep turned on), but keeps so-called “PresidentialAlerts” turned on regardless of any other setting. The only way to avoid receiving such an alert would be if the phone is turned off. Obviously, this sort of alert is meant to be used in cases of extreme national emergency. Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out what that means.

In any case, Thursday’s test is off and will now be conducted on October 3rd

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, Quick Takes, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I was under the impression that this out of Trump’s hands–literally. The warning may be in his name, or that of his office, but he himself doesn’t issue it.

  2. KM says:

    @CSK:
    In which case, they need to make that remarkably clear because this is just bad marketing run amok. Trump is synonymous with Tweeting and social media so anything that’s marked “Presidential” is going to be naturally associated with him if it shows up on your phone. Anything that gets 50~% of the population to seriously ask if they can turn off a (theoretically) critical warning system is just bad, bad, BAD marketing. A warning that can save your life being ignored by millions because of the asshat in charge is a nightmare scenario. Change the name to NationalUrgents or something and make it EXTREMELY clear the President doesn’t and can never personally send out info straight to your phone.

    The concept itself isn’t so bad because right now we depend on news and social media to tell us if it’s hitting the fan in real time. Just…. work on how you’re putting it out there, OK?

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Damn, and I was sooo looking forward to not getting this on Thursday.

    And I still blame Obama.

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  4. Kathy says:

    In Mexico City, we have a seismic alert, which gives you a few seconds’ notice on earthquakes. It’s very useful, and likely has saved lives and prevented injuries. The alert is transmitted to speakers mounted on light poles, but also interrupts all radio broadcasts.

    You can download third-party apps to your phone to get such alerts, but there’s no compulsory system in place.

    BTW, last year’s big quake on Sept. 19th, went by without an alert. that’s because the seismographic network for the alert didn’t consider the area of the epicenter. I hear it has been integrated since.

    As for El Cheeto, I can see him misusing and abusing this thing, unless there are filters in place to prevent it. For example, he might want everyone to know of his triumphant ass-kissing of Putin next time he meets him. And people may be grossly misinformed about his astounding Electoral College Great Victory.

    Was anyone else reminded of the tele-screen in 1984? You couldn’t opt out of them, either.

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  5. CSK says:

    @KM:

    I wonder if they delayed it till Oct. 3 in order to make exactly that sort of change. In any case, Trump’s reaction to an announcement saying “ATTENTION!!!! THIS IS NOT A TWEET FROM DONALD J. TRUMP! HIS FINGERS WERE NEVER NEAR THIS! would be comedy gold.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Alerts of this sort on cellphones has been a feature in Korea since maybe 2010. And because cellphones have their own area codes, the government can send out the text alerts without having any information about the users of the phones by sending the texts to all phones in the systems.

    The one that Immigration would send about my visa expiring in 30 days was targeted, though. And addressed to me personally, but that didn’t trouble me. (Or the people I knew who were overstaying their visas illegally as far a I could tell.)

  7. Matt says:

    Personally I’m already getting tired of alerts on my phone. I don’t need to know it’s flooding when I can look out my door and see a foot of water…. Litterly I got flood warnings AFTER the flooding was well on it’s way. I have yet to get a weather alert that was semi-useful. On saturday alone I got 4 emergency alerts for the same fcking flooding. Nothing had changed but they kept spamming my phone anyway. I got alerts everyday that said the exact same thing starting the 10th.. Absolutely worthless as it’s always the same spot that floods and I have never had a need to go to that area.

    Then there’s the amber and silver alerts I kept getting when I’m not even leaving the house that day.

    Basically the flooding last weekend combined with the incessant amber/silver alerts lead me to disable everything I could in relation to that on my phone. I can’t wait for the presidential alert bullshit to start annoying me next…
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    EDIT : My phone’s screen only half works. Split down the middle the left half works and the right half only works very occasionally. So trying to interact with pop up texts taking precedence over whatever I was doing can be extremely tedious as I have to rotate the phone just right to get the button to work to close the pop up emergency text. I didn’t break the phone. Half the screen just stopped working days after the end of the warranty period. I got that phone as a replacement because my original phone had a manufacturing defect. The solder that LG used was so cheap and shitty that at a low heat the solder would begin to run and so over the years the main chip de-soldered itself from the main board which perma bricked my original phone.

  8. Tyrell says:

    As I may have mentioned I will have my phone off and the battery out. I am in the process of getting off the Google grid and maybe all the internet machines. I do have a few flip phones from a few years ago when they would stay charged for a way. I am going to see about getting one of those back in service.
    I found my old CB and had it up and running the past weekend during our weather “event”.We came out lucky around here: lots of rain and wind, but no major flooding or power outages.
    We are headed toward a future where 15 – 20 corporations run everything: health care, transportation, communication, energy, food, manufacturing.
    Look at AT&T. I remember when they broke that company up. Now it is larger than ever.
    “unwarranted influence by the military/industrial complex” (President Eisenhower)
    Google’s folly:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/09/10/googles-no-show-congress-adds-its-political-headache/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ce89458d777d