Emergency Text Alert Test Goes Out On Nation's Cellphones

Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2018 - 12:37pm
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A test of the Presidential Alert system went out on Oct. 3, 2018.

On Wednesday morning — at 11:18 a.m. Arizona Time — the Federal Emergency Management Agency tested the first of two new wireless emergency alert notifications to every wireless phone in the country reading “Presidential Alert.”

The national emergency notification was sent out as a vibrating tone similar to AMBER Alerts or weather warnings you hear on your phone. This was immediately followed by a test of the Emergency Alert System at 11:20 a.m. Arizona Time.     

“Both will leverage our cellular as well as our broadcast capabilities to deliver emergency information at the national level should we ever have to do that,” said Antoine Johnson, director of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alerts and Warning Systems Division.

For those concerned about the system being misused to convey a political message, akin to President Donald Trump’s tweets, the president will not be directly triggering these alerts. In addition, Johnson said there are safeguards in place.

“The protocols, the law, the policies governing the use of these systems are well established and well-understood," he said. "You would not have a situation where any sitting president would just wake up one morning and attempt to send a personal message. The system is very well governed and rooted in law in terms of its intended use.”

Unlike Amber alerts, cellphone users and other devices using wireless companies' towers weren't allowed to opt-out of the alerts. This aspect has prompted some privacy experts to reject the tests as "invasive" government overreach.

In an attempt to halt the planned testing, a complaint was filed in Manhattan federal court last week with plaintiffs claiming the test is a "violation of Americans' First and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from government-compelled listening, as well as warrantless, non-consensual trespass into and seizure of their cellular devices."

Greg Leslie, executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at the ASU Law School called into question the challenge to these tests on First Amendment grounds.

“The compelled listening argument is not as strong in an area like a telecommunication device like your phone where it’s being done, allegedly or by law, for natural disasters or acts of terrorism,” he said.

FEMA noted that not every cellphone will have the compatibility to feature the alerts and people outside of cell tower reach also weren't notified.

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