In a little more than two weeks, everyone in the United States who owns a cellphone will receive a text message directly from the president.
It’s part of an effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to better warn people in the case of an emergency. But the program raises key concerns about the right to privacy and how the system could potentially be abused.
You’ve seen Amber Alerts and flash-flood alerts. This is the next step in cellphone emergency alerts, and it will mark the first time the president of the United States will be able to reach every cellphone user in America with a direct message that will simply say:
“This is a test of the national wireless emergency alert system. No action is needed.”
The message is a test run for a system in which a warning will come from the president in the case of an emergency like a weather disaster or terrorism. This is thanks to a bipartisan law passed under the Obama administration to increase emergency preparedness efforts. And while cellphone users can opt out of receiving other text messages, they cannot opt out of receiving this one. It raises the specter of concern for legal experts: what constitutes an emergency, and what if the president abuses this power to contact every person with a cellphone?
“The president solely gets to make that determination under the law,” said Harold Krent, dean of IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law. “This law is vague. There’s no constraints on what is a national emergency or what is a terrorist threat. In addition, we have to make sure that the technology used by the government does not capture individual phones or GPS systems so that we can’t use this as a backdoor into tracking the American public.”
A spokesperson for the CTIA, the trade group that represents the wireless industry, says that this program cannot collect anyone’s data. It is a “push message,” in which cellphone towers beam the message and an alert buzz or sound to users. The government is not getting into anyone’s phone or getting anyone’s personal phone number.
Krent says that if a president uses the system for purposes other than an imminent threat, they can be sued for not following the law that Congress passed. But he does say it’s important that an extreme alert come from the president, because they have the ultimate authority in declaring what exactly constitutes a terrorist attack. Krent says that with the proper protections, it can be a very effective way of keeping the country safe in the case of a major disaster.
“We know about Amber Alerts they seem to work, we know about flash flood warnings. That protects the public,” Krent said. “Used sagely, this notification system can be just as salutary and help the public.”
In fact, the CTIA says public safety officials have sent more than 36,000 wireless emergency alerts, or WEAs, to warn Americans about tornadoes, wildfires and flooding, and more than 50 missing children have been recovered thanks to Amber Alerts.
The test was supposed to be done this Thursday, but because of ongoing Hurricane Florence relief efforts, FEMA postponed it until Oct. 3.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz