On October 3, 2018, FEMA and the FCC will be testing their Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which is an expansion of the public broadcasting alerts you once saw on TV. (They’re still there, actually, if anyone watches cable late at night.) The IPAWS consists of traditional alert channels like radio and TV and new alert channels like cell data.
The announcement of the test has resurrected a 2016 rumor that claims President Trump will be able to mass text Americans directly. One of the kinds of alerts that exists under IPAWS is an un-opt-outable “Presidential Alert” which some news reports fear gives unilateral control to the President to push messaging out to our cell phones. This rumor is absolutely false for a number of reasons.
- The Presidential Alerts are not new and have, in fact, been tested before: twice under President Obama (November 2011 & September 2016) and once already under President Trump (September 2017).What’s new about this test is that FEMA is testing delivery of the alert over broadcast (TV) and data (cell phones) at the same time to make sure that doing both at once doesn’t break the system.
- It is extremely difficult to send out a national alert. There are both legal and technical requirements that must be met before an alert is able to be delivered. It is vanishingly unlikely that Trump would be able to or choose to send whatever messages he’d like as alerts. Additionally, there IS oversight of the process from thousands of stakeholders with a vested interest in keeping alerts trustworthy and professional. (See more below).
- It is true that you cannot opt out of the Presidential Alerts. By law, national alerts are incapable of being turned off. You may discover a way to switch off alerts in your phone settings, but in fact you will be turning off local alerts which–let’s be honest–are probably more useful to you than national alerts. If you’ve ever received an Amber Alert or a severe weather alert by text, that is an example of your local alert system. Those kinds of alerts originate from your county emergency management office or police department, etc. You can turn them off, but it’s not recommended. The national alerts you can’t turn off because they’re built into your SIM cards. But most importantly, the IPAWS is for emergency alerts only and is controlled by FEMA with support from the FCC. Trump won’t be texting you on a whim.
- Finally, I want to correct another mistaken rumor I’ve been hearing. The Wireless Emergency Alerts (the ones that go to your cell), do not collect any data. The system is designed to push data only. It does not collect location data or personal information. While it may feel like the alerts know where you are, in fact, it only sends data to the tower. If you’re near the tower, you get the alert.
Let’s unpack these further:
First, it’s important to note that so called “Presidential Alerts” are not new. They have existed in every iteration of the national warning system since its inception in the 1950s. Even more importantly, they have never been used. Never, not once under any president. I note this so strongly because many of the reports seem to imply that the controversial Presidential Alerts are something that Trump made in order to more forcefully influence the public. That is false.
Here’s some history to help us see how:
In 1951, President Truman established the Emergency Broadcast System (at that time, known as CONELRAD) which used AM radio to warn citizens of inbound nuclear attacks. In the ’60s and 70’s it was expanded to include FM radio and TV and developed further at the local levels. In the 1990s, it changed it’s name to it’s current one “The Emergency Alert System,” (EAS).
In 2006, in response to the difficulties surrounding Hurricane Katrina, President Bush signed Executive Order 13407 ordering DHS (Dept of Homeland Security) to modernize and unify the nation’s existing public alert system which was made up of these 4 separate systems:
A) The Emergency Alert System (EAS) This system sends text and audio based messages over TV and radio stations, cable, and satellite services. These messages are NOT relayed over the NOAA/National Weather Service radios which many Americans use in their preparedness kits.
B) NOAA Weather Radio is a 24-hour network of VHF FM weather radio stations that transmit directly from local National Weather Service offices. It’s especially used in the mid-west.
C) The National Warning System (NAWAS) which is an automated telephone landline-based warning system. While still in use, it is slowly being made obsolete as fewer and fewer households have a landline.
D) And finally, the Wireless Emergency Alerts designed to issue warnings over mobile devices like cells, tablets, and pagers. This program was funded by the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006. It allows for automated messages (specially wrapped in software code) to be sent to cell carriers who in turn push the message via their towers to all cell phones in range. The three types of messages legally allowed are: Presidential Alerts, Alerts involving imminent threats to life safety classified as “extreme threats” or “severe threats” (most often weather and terrorism-related alerts), and AMBER alerts (child abduction emergencies). Presidential alerts have never been issued. The only use has been other agencies with access to the network like the National Weather Service and FBI.
These 4 systems were unified under the IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) platform which helps systems with different tech requirements share information between them.
Now for the legal requirements I promised:
Legally, IPAWS must only be used for emergencies (and testing, obviously). The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 specifically says:
Use of System.—Except to the extent necessary for testing the public alert and warning system, the public alert and warning system shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.
Additionally, the FCC has various other established laws and protocols which reinforce the rule: emergency use only.
Finally, as I mentioned, there is also a body of stakeholders who monitor IPAWS use and read policy and technical updates. Here is the list which includes State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial government group members; the International Association of Emergency Managers (an independent certifying and research body); disability rights groups, and independent legal/policy, and technical experts.
And finally, the technology barriers behind it all:
It is far more complicated to send out an IPAWS alert than tweeting as you can see from this protocol guide. A protocol guide is the manual for IPAWS technicians which explains how to properly send out a message and how to troubleshoot the system. This one is mostly software code. In order to send out a message, you have to know how to code (among other things) the header and ender that bookends the message. Also, the message length is limited to about a sentence or several phrases. Therefore, I think it’s far more likely that Trump would choose to tweet–even if he could overcome the legal and technical barriers. Snopes agrees:
Although it is true that an FCC emergency alert system function enables any sitting president to send emergency texts to all Americans (and that only messages from the president cannot be blocked), any other information is pure speculation: nothing substantiates the idea that President Trump intends to misuse the system, or that the FCC would allow him to do so.
- Mashable with links to legal documents
- NBC News report with good quotes from communications researchers
- Wireless Emergency Alert FAQs from FEMA and the FCC
- List of Alerting Agencies who are allowed to use the IPAWS system
- IPAWS Fact Sheet in English and Spanish
- A politically-biased but decent technical description of IPAWS with further tech links
- All about CAPs (common alerting protocol) for techies. Audio and website
Featured Image: Woman standing next to air raid siren, WWII. Unknown origin, though possibly Toronto.