Might as well plan for a coffee break at around 2:15 tomorrow – at least folks in the Eastern Time zone. The rest of America, plan accordingly for a grand interruption. A nationwide test of something that will be now known as a “Presidential Alert” is planned to begin at 2:18 p.m. ET. And for the next 30 minutes or so, cell phones will be buzzing and beeping an blinking just about everywhere in the country. Since you are reading this story, you know about this, and hopefully it won’t disrupt your entire afternoon. But expect many of your colleagues to be distracted, squirrel-style, by this test. When that happens, sound smart! Keep reading and I’ll explain a little more about what’s going on.
NOTE: If you are out of tower range, or your phone is off, you won’t get the text until your phone re-connects to a network. So stray test texts could be beeping for hours, or even a day or two.
Most of us have already received some kind of wireless text message warning: texts that a bad storm is coming, or there’s a missing child. Known as Wireless Emergency Alerts, those texts have been geographically limited, for obvious reasons. Tomorrow’s test will be the first time such a text reaches most Americans. It has been ordered by the Trump administration. But the wireless alert system launched in 2012, after years of design and discussion, long before the Trump presidency.
Given our incredibly jaded and cynical electorate, many people will express frustration that President Trump can interrupt their day in this way. One can imagine the abuse of such a system, but in general, such tests are good. It’s a massive undertaking and there’s no way to know how the system would perform under nationwide stress without testing it in real-life conditions.
Wireless Emergency Alerts are important, and becoming more important all the time, because fewer consumers pay attention to local media any longer. In fact, local media is quickly disappearing. Once upon a time, local TV and radio networks could be counted on to broadcast these kinds of warnings through the Emergency Alert System (that familiar scary, screeching tone). No longer. In a world where most “local” radio is really delivered via satellite, it’s easy to imagine citizens not hearing about a tornado warning (or something scarier) until it’s too late.
So the disruption is worth it. To minimize disruption, it will help to understand what’s going on, and not let all that beeping tear too much into your afternoon. Me, I’ll be hosting a conference on computer security in D.C. at the time, and I’m sure this will wreak havoc on the panel going on. Hopefully, we can integrate it into our discussion. Yes, there are risks with such warnings, which I’ll describe below. But first, here are a few more specifics from the FCC:
- THE WIRELESS ALERT TEST MESSAGE: The WEA test message will appear on consumers’ phones and read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” Phones will display this national test using the header “Presidential Alert.” These nationwide alerts, established pursuant to the WARN Act of 2006, are meant for use in a national emergency and are the only type of alert that can be sent simultaneously nationwide by FEMA.
- RECIPIENTS: Many members of the public will receive the WEA test message on their cell phones. Specifically, beginning at 2:18 p.m. EDT, cell towers will broadcast the WEA test for approximately 30 minutes. During this time, WEA-compatible wireless phones that are switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA, should be capable of receiving the test message. Wireless phones should receive the message only once.
- BACKGROUND ON SYSTEM: The WEA system, launched in 2012, is used to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children, and other critical situations through alerts on cell phones. Alerts are created and sent by authorized federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governmental agencies through IPAWS to participating wireless providers, which deliver the alerts to compatible handsets in geo-targeted areas. To help ensure that WEA alerts are accessible to the entire public, including people with disabilities, WEA alerts are accompanied by a unique tone and vibration. The national WEA test will use the same special tone and vibration. In the event of a national emergency, a Presidential WEA alert would be issued at the direction of the President and/or his/her designee, and activated by FEMA.
Politics aside, warning messages carry their own risks. Warning systems can be hacked, and they can be subject to human error. Both have occurred recently with serious consequences. Earlier this year, Hawaiians were sent a message that specifically indicated it was NOT A DRILL; the text warned of an incoming ballistic missile. The accident happened during a time of heightened tension with North Korea. As you might imagine, the text sent chills around the state, and around the world. The incident was dramatic, but not isolated.
Last year, a bogus tsunami warning was issued to Oregon residents. That was also a mistake. Meanwhile, in Dallas, hackers took over a siren warning system and toyed with it through most of a night, waking residents and creating an ongoing fear incident.
These kinds of mishaps show how serious abuse of these early warning systems can be. Plenty of cyberwar specialists will tell you that the way to augment any kind of attack on America is to confuse the population with bogus warnings, causing panic. I discuss this in detail in a story called False alarms are the real fake news.
While I expect a lot of water-cooler discussions tomorrow about “Trump’s text,” I hope the real conversation is happening among security professionals working to secure this system. Meanwhile, after 2:18 ET tomorrow, I hope you will simply carry on with your day.