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!”
We don’t need presidential alerts! We already have public emergency alert messaging. This is not necessary! We should be able to opt out of these messages. Wth would he have to say that local agencies can’t. No!
— JoAnn (@JoAnnNYNY) September 15, 2018
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