FEMA Alert and Signs of Extreme Division

There are days that the signs of serious division are hard to miss. Granted, the hearings over Brett Kavanaugh are that, but the reaction to the presidential level test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system was even more worrisome. Let me explain.

Have you received an Amber alert? I actually remember the first one I got. It was over Hannah Anderson, who was kidnapped by her father. It was loud, it was obnoxious and the second alert I got was when they found her in Idaho.

I probably remember more of those details since at the time I was a day to day reporter, and covered it. However, I did not know at the time that the alerts were enacted by my service provider in an agreement with the Federal Government. Verizon would soon follow. It was part of the early WEA.

The presidential alert part of the system was enacted in legislation by President Barack Obama. He signed the enabling legislation that made this part of the national emergency warning system. This is a structure that has existed since the Cold War. In the old days, most of us had radios at home. Every week, you are at home, the system is tested on your television set and radio. We have all received weather alerts via the system. I doubt any of those are controversial, and yes, they do save lives.

However, the presidential alert system has not been used, ever. To be honest, you have never seen one on your TV or heard it on your radio. And we should hope we never do, beyond a system test. Why? That would mean a national level emergency. A pandemic might trigger it. So would a nuclear strike, Perhaps a major electric blackout, like we had in California a few years back. Especially if this covered a major area of the country. Oh never mind that when the Eastern Sea Board saw one, there was no presidential alert.

In other words, they are reserved for critical events. And while the president has some say into what a critical event is, there are protocols in place. President Donald Trump had no role in this test, and by law, he could not make it personal either. So no worries, he will not be tweeting you using that system anytime soon.

As a former emergency responder, I am also cognizant of why your phone has an E911 chip in it. And no, I do not care what John McAfee says. The capacity to track you, listen to you, access your camera and all functions in your device has existed, in some cases literally for decades. And as an expert in cybersecurity, he knows better. But as a libertarian, he is reacting to this as yet another government invasion and pushing the buttons of people who do not trust the government.

Let's be crystal clear about this. If the Feds want to use your phone to track you, test or no test they can do that. Every time you move the phone pings the nearest cell phone tower. Your location is automatically triangulated by the system. This is done to efficiently route your calls or data packets. This is so effective that a recent Supreme Court decision says law enforcement cannot just access that data just because. They can, with a warrant. The decision partially reads:

Allowing government access to cell-site records — which
“hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,’ ” Riley v.
California, 573 U. S. ___, ___ — contravenes that expectation. In fact, historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring considered in Jones: They give the Government near perfect surveillance and allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the five-year retention policies of most wireless carriers.

This is critical. The government in Carpenter did not obtain a warrant. And with that, there were serious violations of the Fourth Amendment. So yes, the government can track your movements. They can request that data from carriers. They need a warrant and probable cause in order to do that. I suspect many a legal case is built using this. In fact, I know it is. Both the Feds and the state can track you on Social Media as well. Police intelligence units do it already as well. Are you feeling a little paranoid? Incidentally, Human Resources can also read your social media presence as part of the hiring process.

But back to cell phones. What other uses does that pinging has? If you have an accident or get lost, increasingly 911 services will be able to use that data to find you. And if you get lost, that 911 pinging could be used by your rescuers to find you. This is an exigent circumstance to save your life. And if you call 911, they can locate you and send emergency services. The ability existed earlier with your landline, but over the last five years, it has been rolled out to cell phones using the E911 chip.

And in California, that cell phone may help get help to you if the building collapses around you. This is a real-world situation that many never think about.

So what was this test?

It was the first test of the system at a presidential message level. Some people got it multiple times, some did not. I got it once. Hiccups are always expected the first few times you test a brand new (ish) system. Remember, this has been used for Amber alerts for some time now. There are some differences since in theory, it should survive a major event and your definition of what a major event and the government might be a tad different. And to be honest, in a nuclear war, the push system underground may survive, but not the cell towers needed to get it to you. Also, this part of the system was implemented under legislation quietly signed by former President Barack Obama.

What was worrisome was the reaction, and yes, even paranoia from people on social media. It is telling about the dangerous levels of division we live under. And I am willing to bet that if the message was sent on January 1, 2016, when Obama was still president, the other side would have reacted in the same irrational way.

The Reactions…

It was something to behold on social media. People actually posted things that were utterly partisan. This is not a good thing given that the country is extremely divided. What was tested literally, was an update to the Emergency Alert System (EAS). This puts another layer on the system going back to the 1950s. In this case, it is using the wireless system. Why? How many of you still listen to the radio? Perhaps the TV, I know more do, but still. How many of you are stuck on your little and big computer screens every day? How many of you carry cell phones everywhere?

How likely are you to get that alert on your tv or the radio that many of you no longer own? I know I am in the minority in that respect. We not only own an actual physical, battery operated radio but own a few. We have extra batteries for them as well, Remember the California blackout a few years back? Rumors were all over when that blackout started. They ranged from a terrorist attack to war, especially in the first few hours. I was listening to my local radio within ten minutes because I knew that news would come that way.

There is more, the EAS has been used for local emergencies since it came into effect. The National Weather Service uses this system regularly to tell us of flash flood alerts. It is not nefarious. It is not evil…it is not fascism either. When I saw that one, I had to laugh. And if this was done under Obama, the right wing would tell us that we would be seeing martial law. Incidentally, the all loving and cuddly QAnon see this as another step towards the martial law they crave

When people do not want to get an emergency text because of who is the president, that is a problem. This visceral reaction is telling of how divided we are as a nation. This is not healthy.

In fact, it is a symptom of a dysfunction that is very deep. Emergency alerts should not be partisan. It is there in case of an emergency. It should not lead to people dreaming flights of fancy about how the government is going to spy on them. I mean, if they want to, they have had the tools for literally decades, no message necessary.

Likely we are going to see more tests of this system since it had some major hiccups. We see them every week, on your tv and your radio. And in the beginning, they will likely let you know they are testing the system. In time, even the more cynical of partisans among us, will stop with this silliness, I hope.

And speaking as a former first responder, these are useful and important tools. They are used in emergencies, and the way this one is in particular, I hope that all we get are tests, warts and all. Because if we ever get the real deal, it will not be good.

However, when an emergency message is distrusted this way, we have crossed into more dysfunction and division. This is very dangerous, and nations, where citizens fear each other that much, are not far from violence. It is time to step from that dangerous ledge.

The correction is on the frequency of the EAS tests. A friend in broadcasting pointed to me it is once a week.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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