We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf. Last week we had a nationwide example of that.
I’m about to break an unwritten rule I have for this blog in that I try to avoid politics as much as possible. But here I’m going to try to steer away from any particular partisan position and try to discuss the impact of both certain policies and the resulting reactions.
So, to be upfront, I am not a fan of President Trump, nor do I subscribe to his brand or style of politics. That said, let’s carry on.
So, at approximately 2:20 PM EDT on Thursday of last week, millions of Americans had their phones buzz, beep, play some sort of tune, etc. By the build up and reaction, you would have thought it was the end of the world. Ironically, the system MIGHT someday be used to actually alert us to the end of the world. Hopefully not.
The event I’m referring to of course was a test of a new system that many phones classify as a “Presidential Alert”. It’s really the latest in a series of systems the US has had over the years to alert citizens to potential dangers or crises.
Some of my readers may be old enough to recall AM radios that had two markings on them, small triangles with a CD in them. This was for the CONELRAD alert system that was in place from 1953-1963. This was designed to be used strictly in the event of a nuclear attack and was never intended nor used in the event of a natural disaster.
It was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System. This system was actually used to alert local and regional areas to extreme weather events and other natural disasters. In 1997 it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System. The EAS was designed to take advantage of the expanding ways of reaching people. This ultimately included the ability to send text alerts to phones in the US.
There are, and have been from day one of the design for phones, three types of alerts, the “Presidential Alert”, alerts for extreme weather or other events and Amber alerts. Phones have had the ability to receive these alerts for close to a decade now; and, importantly, for the second two type of alerts, the ability to shut them off. Phones can NOT turn off the Presidential Alert. This is by design and this has been a feature of the system from day 1. In other words, despite what many in social media seemed to believe, this feature was baked in long before President Trump took office.
So enough history, let’s get to the the wolf cry. Both before and after, I saw people all over Facebook and other media proclaiming how bothered they were and upset that the President had the ability to text them directly. He (or ultimately she) can’t.
Ok, that’s not quite true. My understanding is that the President can issue a statement through the White House Communications Director that gets passed on to the appropriate people that would activate the EAS and the WEA and the statement would go out. But the idea of President Trump or any President sitting at their desk and picking up their phone and texting all of America is not true. It’s a myth and image built up by folks who are quite frankly paranoid. This does not mean that the system can’t be abused. However, there are numerous checks in the system that I’m extremely doubtful that such non-emergency use would ever actually intentionally occur.
But, the fact that people apparently feel so strongly about the risks troubles me. There’s no doubt that this President uses social media in ways unlike any previous President. This President is far more likely to say what’s on his mind without much filter. Some people love him for that, some vilify him.
BUT, this man is the President, NOT the Office of the President nor the entire Executive Branch. This is an important distinction and one to keep in mind. Regardless of how one feels about the State of the Union, there are still checks on the actual authority he can wield. And ultimately if the system did get abused, one would hope that someone along the chain would say “no” or if it got beyond that Congress would ultimately enact additional safeguards.
For a system like the EAS and the WEA to work, we need to test them. And we need to have faith they are properly used. Yes, sometimes mistakes happen in an unscheduled test going out, or worse, a test mistakenly sending out a message that a real event is transpiring. These mistakes NEED to be avoided and minimized so that people don’t panic (which can cause harm, including death in some cases). But the testing needs to happen to make sure the system DOES work when needed. We need to have a general faith, though perhaps tempered with SOME caution of abuse of the system. (BTW, I do realize there’s some controversy over exactly what transpired in the Hawaii incident and in fact might actually illustrate an actual abuse of the system by an individual.)
But we should not let the partisan social media actions of one particular President make us never believe the boy who cried wolf. Someday the cry may be real.
As long as the national level tests like the one that occurred last Thursday remain infrequent, with a clear purpose, and are clearly tests, I will continue to advocate for them.
P.S. Oh, one more addendum, anything you see about John McAfee concerning the test, or the E911 of your phone should be basically ignored.
P.P.S One of the eeriest experiences of my life was walking into my apartment and catching a rebroadcast of the movie Countdown to Looking Glass. It made me better understand how folks could have fallen for the Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Now I would never advocate searching for a bootleg copy of the movie on Youtube, but if you can find a copy it’s worth watching in my opinion, and honestly, the last minute or so still sort of freaks me out.
A system like WEA and EAS needs to be tested, and by its nature it can’t be tested in a sandbox. You cannot effectively simulate sending an alert to hundreds of millions of cell phones through hundreds of thousands of towers and dozens of carriers. You cannot effectively simulate sending an alert to every cable TV box and television in the country.
You need to do these tests because you need to know if they fail. You can’t fix problems that you aren’t aware of.
Part of my job is handling EAS for an ISP/TV provider, and…we had problems with last year’s nationwide EAS test. Servers crashed, messages timed out, some devices didn’t get alerts. A major part of my job over the past year has been making sure that, this year, every device got its alert in a timely manner – and they did.
Ayup. If you can’t test the system, you can’t trust it. And if you can’t trust it, it’s as good as useless.