October 15, 2018

The Problem with FEMA Phone Alerts

“The bewildering vagueness of these texts is a real problem. Remember, during a false alarm to phones in Hawaii earlier this year, a message said simply: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” Part of the panic that followed, one resident told The New York Times, was that “there was no intel,” no way of learning more immediately, with just a handful of minutes before hypothetical destruction.

There are far more problems with the system than just a lack of clarity, though. One is the potential constitutional violation of the “rights to be free from government-compelled listening,” as stated in a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs in Manhattan. Although FEMA maintains that the alerts will only be used for mega-disasters, the infrastructure is now in place for it to, down the line, be used in other, more totalitarian ways. While presidents are currently restricted in what they can beam out to citizens by a 2015 law that specifies the alert system can’t be used for anything that “does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety,” some critics find those terms frustratingly unspecific. After all, it was the alleged threat to national security that allowed President Trump to implement the so-called Muslim ban.

Further, part of what makes the presidential alert more objectionable than old school or local alert systems is the intimacy of the government pinging a message straight to our phones — a private device that most people have on their bodies at all times, rather than something they choose to voluntarily tune in and out of. The authors of the aforementioned lawsuit claim that “subjecting plaintiffs to compulsory presidential alerts on their cellular devices turns those devices into government loudspeakers, against their wishes. Those loudspeakers operate on plaintiffs’ persons wherever they are, turning the plaintiffs themselves into mobile government loudspeakers.” That’s a pretty spooky thought.”

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