Last Wednesday, on October 3 at 2:18 PM ETC, millions of U.S. cell phone users received a text message that caught them by surprise, setting off waves of concern and myriad questions—was it an Amber Alert? A national crisis warning? No. It appeared to be a harmless alert from the White House: THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed. And as everyone in the nation simultaneously reached to silence their blasting devices, it wasn’t long before social media was afire with jokes that Trump must be testing an alternate system in case Twitter should go down.
But all joking aside, the actual goal was for FEMA to upgrade the national Emergency Alert System (EAS) so it remains reliable during a real crisis, like Hurricane Florence, man-made disasters—or even worse, an act of war. FEMA’s disaster communications protocol known as IPAWS, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, is a national system for sending local alerts. It provides the means for disseminating authenticated emergency alert and warning messaging from emergency officials to the public historically through TV, Radio, and now cell phones.
During this time, anyone with a WEA-compatible cell phone that was switched on and within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA, likely received the alert messages. While users cannot “opt out” of WEA alerts, some cell phones did not receive the test message, which has also raised some concern about what happens to those folks in the event of a real emergency.
While this test appears to be the evolution of long-standing national effort to create the perfect doomsday alert system, some people are still eager to opt out. But officially, they can’t. That said, it is possible to turn off Amber Alerts and other emergency messages in iOS and Android, and those settings won’t affect your ability to receive this test.
What do the experts say?
Despite the alarming tweet by cybersecurity guru, John McAfee, who immediately suggested the presidential alerts could access the E911 of all cell phones and gain data like location, microphone, camera, and numerous other functions, it appears the national message was really just a push notification and not connected E911 at all.
In an exclusive interview, former White House CIO during the G.W. Bush administration, Carlos Solari, who was once in charge of all IT for the Executive Office of the President, shed some light on the recent event. “This system has to work no matter what, not just when it is sunny,” remarked Solari. He went on to point out that there are three critical success factors in making the EAS work well. One reason it has taken so long to get this to this point is because they need to ensure the integrity of the system to prevent against various types of risk.
Machines may misfire or break, while humans make mistakes. At worst, one person can manipulate a single moving part and bring down an entire system. With this “human error” in mind, consider there are three steps in a successful EAS communication. The message originates from the White House “situation room,” where it is crafted and approved before traveling to a point of contact at FEMA, who then sends the alert to the major carriers—who then send the text message to their customers’ mobile phone.
Another example of “human error” comes to mind with respect to EAS alerts. Exactly one year ago, residents in Northern California woke up to their homes engulfed in flames in the Santa Rosa Coffee Park neighborhood because local law enforcement authorities made the poor decision not to alert people via text message. Because they did not want to alarm people, they instead opted to rely on outdated call center technology sending calls out that most people never received. By the time the firefighters were knocking on the doors of many homes, it was too late.
Mr. Solari closed the conversation by saying “This is a good thing. We need this capability.”
What led up to this?
Plans for expanding the reach of IPAWS to include cellular phones have been in development since the George W. Bush Whitehouse and were carried forward in the Obama administration—and they are now being implemented under the Trump administration as a result. The expanded reach and improved effectiveness of the original EAS has been a long time coming. The EAS was based on the War Powers Act, a provision of the Communications Act of 1934, which provided presidential access to commercial communications during “a state of public peril or disaster or other national emergencies.” However, with the emergence of mobile and cellular technologies, this somewhat antiquated system is now in dire need of an upgrade.
This is the fourth EAS nationwide test and the first national WEA test. Previous EAS national tests were conducted in November 2011, September 2016, and September 2017 in collaboration with the FCC, broadcasters, and emergency management officials.
What are the critical success factors?
The critical success factors in making the IPAWS system work involve security, privacy, honesty and technology. All of them play key roles in the breakdown or triumph of the Emergency Alert System in the event of a natural or human-caused disaster.
- Confidentiality: Like a bank account, the EAS needs to be secure. No one should be able to go into your account and change your number. Everyone needs to be assured that their privacy is safe. Most of the responsibility resides at the carrier level.
- Integrity: No one should be able to “go in there and cook the books.” As in the case of the White House staffer who released the personal address of congressional members resulting in harassment and invasion of privacy. Imagine the risk if someone interfered in the official verbiage of the words intended to be sent from FEMA to millions of Americans?
- Availability: Cell towers need to work. Battery life is limited after the power goes out. This was the case when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. If the cell tower that transmits the cell signal is out, what good is an alert intended to reach your phone? We need our critical communications systems to survive when everything else has failed, and we need an infrastructure that will work even when everything else is down. Cell towers have limited battery life as back-up power when electricity is out. There are plans to put back-up solar or wind-powered solutions in place.
Geotargeting can be helpful.
When your phone asks you to allow it to identify your location, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The benefit of allowing location access is the functionality needed for IPAWS to work nationally, at scale.
For instance, if you are driving on a highway, and you get a notice via the radio saying there is a tornado in the next town. This is not specific enough to know whether we should turn around, continue driving or pull over and wait. By contrast, location based text messages can give us more accurate real-time updates based on exact geo. As with “Amber Alerts”, the GPS that is in everyone’s cell phone might save a life.