There is a bunch of hysteria running rampant about the September 20, 2018 test of the “Presidential Level Alert” functionality of the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA), which is part of the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS). (See FEMA Notice of Alert Here.) The thrust of the concerns is that Fearless Leader is creating a propaganda system that can blast through all cell phones and no one can opt out.
I ask everyone to please calm down. The fact that it is called a “Presidential Alert” has nothing to do with Trump. This all goes back to The Warning, Alert, Response Network Act (WARN Act) of 2006 (and tweaked by the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Act of 2015). That Act required that we integrate the old Emergency Alert System (EAS) which is on broadcast and cable with a newly created wireless emergency alert system (WEA) so that we could take advantage of the emerging communications technology (texting in 2006, broadened in 2015) to warn people in advance of disasters.
Most emergency alerts are local. Indeed, the primary challenge of EAS and WEA in the last few years has been focused on trying to get as narrowly targeted and hyper-local as possible, so that people who are not impacted don’t receive false alerts, while people who are impacted receive real-time instructions. There is also a long term element about incorporating new technologies capable of handling multi-lingual warnings (and not just Spanish) and other potentially life saving capabilities (such as locating the nearest evacuation shelter).
However, one element is the creation of an integrated national emergency alert system in the highly unlikely event that we might have some kind of national level disaster that requires immediate real-time communication of one set of instructions on a national basis. Prior to the WARN Act, such as capacity did not exist. It has now been developed, but it has never been tested on a national basis before. The test of this capability was scheduled for September 20, 2018 well before Hurricane Florence became a concern.
This absolutely has nothing to do with Trump. The WARN Act mandates that while users may opt out of other alerts, they may not opt out of “Presidential Level Alerts.” This was decided way back in 2006, when Congress determined that people should not be able to opt out of anything so important that it triggers a nation-wide alert (although, annoyingly, they did give wireless carriers freedom to opt out of WEA entirely, which tells you a lot about the priorities of Congress back in 2006). See WARN Act Sec. 602 (b)(2)(E). This was not a choice by the Trump Administration. Nor can the current FCC allow people to opt out of “Presidential Level Alerts.” It’s in the WARN ACT of 2006.
The IPAWS Act of 2015 (Sec. 526(d)) further limits IPAWS (including Presidential Level Alerts) to messages relating to “natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.) And while it is entirely possible for President Trump to decide that generating support for his reelection campaign relates to either and act of terrorism or other man-made disaster, that still wouldn’t be enough to switch on IPAWS. As with many things, the request goes down the chain of command, with lots of safeguards along the way to prevent abuse of the system. Remember, this was modified back in 2015 by Republican Senator Ron Johnson when Republicans were convinced Obama was an evil socialist Kenyan out to destroy our way of life. You can bet they they put safeties in place.
So please, please stop spreading rumors about this. Please stop treating this as more evidence of Trump overreach with all kinds of possible sinister motives. The President can’t just press a button to send out a text. And while a determined President with enough effort can abuse any system, this is not something Trump can just decide to do with his morning Tweets.
We have enough real craziness going on in the world. We do not need to encourage people to freak out about a routine test of life-saving technology, or portray it as an abuse of authority or diversion of funds.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was asked during the Obama Administration to apply to the FEMA IPAWS subcommittee to act as a consumer/privacy advocate (See IPAWS Act of 2015 (b)(2)(I)(IX)). My admission was not formally processed and approved until 2017. I have been an active member of the FEMA-NAC-IPAWS for approximately the last two years. This statement is entirely my own. It does not represent a statement of the FEMA-NAC-IPAWS or any other advisory committee or federal agency. This is just me asking people to stop panicking and resist the urge to see everything in the administration as an abuse of authority. Yes, the times warrant scrutiny. But there is a difference between laudable skepticism and scrutiny v. panic and conspiracy theory.
Stay tuned . . . .