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The government texts me

October 12, 2012, at 12:20 PM
 

Yesterday, I logged on to my Verizon Wireless account, directed myself to privacy settings, and instructed the company not to share my personal information with other companies. This is a power reserved only for new customers (Update: anyone can do this -- apologies to Verizon), and I felt satisfied that I had taken a small step to regain whatever ineffable sense of personal dignity the age of Big Data has taken away.

And then came the alerts: They were not accompanied by screeching, but they popped up on my iPhone like a priority message. One read: "EMERGENCY ALERT: Flash Flood Warning this area till 6:30 PDT Avoid Flood Areas Check local media — NWS. " This being Los Angeles, these flash floods didn't amount to much. But I digress.

At first I wondered if I had signed up for some National Weather Service notification systems. But then I remembered writing about something like this before.

FEMA, pursuant to a Congressional mandate, was working with the FCC and telecoms to design a Commercial Mobile Alert System, one that would use priority routing to deliver emergency messages directly to cell phones based on their proximity to cell towers in the region of the emergency. Verizon was one of the earliest adopters of the system. Customers can turn the alerts off (Go to notifications and scroll down in your settings app), but they don't allow you to opt in. You'll get the messages direct from the federal government unless you decide you don't want them.

As a privacy guy, this makes me nervous. As a national preparedness guy, a continuity of government geek, I'm rather pleased. The CMAS is basically a software platform used by carriers; it takes alerts from FEMA's Wireless Emergency Alert system and commanders broadcast frequencies to send them directly to mobile devices. For those who can't see or hear well, the alerts can be voiced as well. The National Weather Service went live with their warnings in the summer, the first major agency to do so. 

As a privacy guy, this makes me nervous. As a national preparedness guy, a continuity of government geek, I'm rather pleased.

Notably, CMAS allows for three types of warnings. One: Amber Alerts, for missing kids. Two: So-called "imminent" threats to person and property, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. And three: Presidential emergency messages. Yes, the president of the United States can now text you directly, and hopefully he'd do so only in a time of extreme national crisis, like when he's been moved to a secure location or can't appear on televsion. (FEMA has an entirely separate system for transmitting broadcast messages from the president; they tested it this year for the first time, more than 50 years after it was first proposed.) In every presidential motorcade, a camera operator from the White House Communications Agency is ready for flash broadcasts, which would be transmitted wirelessly through the WHCA van in the motorcade up to a satellite and down to FEMA. Everything is hardened (in theory) from the electromagnetic pulses that would be generated after a nuclear blast.

Cell carriers know where you are based on your location, and there are numerous mechanisms for law enforcement agencies to tap into that data in real time, provided they have a warrant (or in extreme circumstances, an obvious and pressing need). But this layer of alerting, as helpful as it might be, raises questions: How long is the data kept? Is there any difference between normal cell phone tower pings and those that let the phone companies know that your phone is ready to receive alerts? How does CMAS square with the federal laws regarding electronic communication intercepts by law enforcement?  

According to FEMA, the technology used to transmit the alerts does not allow for two-way communication; in other words, the alerting station will send a signal to cell towers in a specific region, and the towers will broadcast the message on a specific frequency; phones that are tuned to that frequency will then process the alerts. At no time (according to the government) will your phone ping back an acknowledgment of the message, and unlike regular text messages, the tower will not record (because it can't) whether every phone in its vicinity received it.

By 2014, every cell phone sold in the US has to be capable of receiving CMAS messages.  So what do you think? Is this something Americans should be concerned about? Or should they welcome it as an innovation that could save lives? Or both?

 

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