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Emergency Alerts Via Text Messaging

Soulskill posted about 6 years ago | from the idk-my-bff-ahmadinejad? dept.

Government 65

The New York Times is reporting that a plan has been approved by Federal regulators to use text messaging to distribute emergency alerts. The system is scheduled to go online by 2010, and will include three different types of alerts: national alerts (such as terrorist attacks), imminent threats (such as natural disasters), and Amber alerts. From the Times: "The plan stems from the Warning Alert and Response Network Act, a 2006 federal law that requires upgrades to the emergency alert system. The act requires the Federal Communications Commission to develop ways to alert the public about emergencies. 'The ability to deliver accurate and timely warnings and alerts through cellphones and other mobile services is an important next step in our efforts to help ensure that the American public has the information they need to take action to protect themselves and their families prior to, and during, disasters and other emergencies,' the commission chairman, Kevin J. Martin, said after the plan was approved."

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65 comments

Ads (5, Interesting)

MrNaz (730548) | about 6 years ago | (#23033640)

I get text alerts from my cell network letting me know about remaining talk time etc. Recently they have started embedding targetted ads in them. Perhaps that'll happen with this system too?

"National Alert:
An attack is being carried out in Washington. The White House has been bombed.
This week only, half price survival gear at Mitchell's Disposals. Compasses, water bottles, camp stoves and outdoor gear as well as army surplus equipment. Get it while it's hot!"

Re:Ads (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 6 years ago | (#23033784)

If the white house was bombed, you honestly think they'd tell anyone?

Re:Ads (1)

somersault (912633) | about 6 years ago | (#23033826)

Whitehouse? What's a Whitehouse? *nudges some more rubble under the gigantic rug* ooooh THE Whitehouse? That's a couple of blocks down the road, you can't miss it.

Re:Ads (1)

dwye (1127395) | about 6 years ago | (#23038542)

"National Alert: An attack is being carried out in Washington. The White House has been bombed. This week only, half price survival gear at Mitchell's Disposals. Compasses, water bottles, camp stoves and outdoor gear as well as army surplus equipment. Get it while it's hot!"

This message is complete nonsense. It exceeds GSM's 160 7bit char limit.

Perhaps if they sent it as multiple pages?

New keyboard (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23041158)

Thanks, you owe me a new keyboard

Re:Ads (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 6 years ago | (#23043428)

This message is complete nonsense. It exceeds GSM's 160 7bit char limit.

PREZ HERE, NYC NUKED 2DAY. I FUKD UP AGIN!. SRY. GB.

Re:Ads (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23064664)

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! You are cracking me up!

First TXT alert (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23033678)

SUM1 SET US UP DA BOMB

Opt-out? (1)

robo_mojo (997193) | about 6 years ago | (#23033694)

What about opting-out of such service? The spooks already have television and radio under cover. Why should you want it in your pocket?

Re:Opt-out? (3, Informative)

bmorton (170477) | about 6 years ago | (#23033766)

From TFA:

Cellphone customers would be able to opt out of the program. They also may not be charged for receiving alerts.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

ameyer17 (935373) | about 6 years ago | (#23033804)

I sure hope that by "may not be charged for recieving alerts" they mean "the cell phone companies are obligated to deliver these propaga^H^H^H^H^H^H^Halerts at no charge to the consumer"
Sadly, I doubt this will actually be the case.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

bmorton (170477) | about 6 years ago | (#23033856)

Also from TFA:

Carriersâ(TM) participation in the system, which has strong support from the industry, is voluntary.
And:

There would be three types of messages, according to the rules.

The first would be a national alert from the president, probably involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The second would involve âoeimminent threatsâ that could include natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or university shootings.

The third would be reserved for child abductions, so-called Amber alerts.
Theoretically, at least, all of these involve things that have to actually happen before an alert is sent.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

ameyer17 (935373) | about 6 years ago | (#23033910)

I'm fairly sure they could invent a terrorist threat to scare us with via txt spam*, or that the President could decide to use this for political spam. Both of those would probably be considered propaganda by some.

*I'm not saying all the alleged terrorist threats aren't based on fact or at least reasonable suspicion, but there have been some pretty ridiculous threats since 9/11 (model airplanes loaded with explosives, anyone?)

Re:Opt-out? (1)

ksheff (2406) | about 6 years ago | (#23039578)

But how many times have they used the emergency broadcast system to cut into TV & radio broadcasts for those events? They are just trying to bring that concept to other devices since not everyone is listening to radio or watching TV.

Re:Opt-out? (3, Insightful)

1u3hr (530656) | about 6 years ago | (#23034674)

There would be three types of messages, according to the rules.

The first would be a national alert from the president, probably involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The second would involve imminent threats that could include natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or university shootings.

The third would be reserved for child abductions, so-called Amber alerts.


Does anyone else find it absurd to equate the abduction of one child with a natural disaster? I realise that to THINK OF THE CHILDREN is mandatory in any political initiative, as of course is THINK OF THE TERRORISTS (though in this case the latter is actually justified), but sending out alerts to the entire population (even if geographically limited) every time a child goes missing seems to be both pointless and annoying. There are a myriad of crimes committed every day that are equally as serious. People will opt out after a short time after being deluged with the equivalent of a Fox news-ticker of crime-as-it-happens crawling across their phone all day long.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

ksheff (2406) | about 6 years ago | (#23039540)

People sign up for the Amber alert things now, so I guess if they are planning on tier 3 messages being completely opt in, it wouldn't be any different. Some lawyers would love to have a crime as it happens news feed on their phones.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

bmorton (170477) | about 6 years ago | (#23047614)

The idea behind the amber alert is to inform as many people as possible about an abducted child and their abudctee so that there are many more eyes looking for the child.

The alerts aren't issued everytime a child goes missing. They are sent out when a case of an abducted child meets certain criteria [wikipedia.org].

Re:Opt-out? (1)

clichescreenname (1220316) | about 6 years ago | (#23037192)

There would be three types of messages, according to the rules.

The first would be a national alert from the president, probably involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The second would involve âoeimminent threatsâ that could include natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or university shootings.

The third would be reserved for child abductions, so-called Amber alerts.
Theoretically, at least, all of these involve things that have to actually happen before an alert is sent.
Child abduction? Yes.


Nuclear attacks and natural disasters? Not so much.

We can detect nuclear attacks some time before they hit us, and things like tornado warnings already exists. I live in a place that gets a lot of tornadoes, and it isn't uncommon for the television to suddenly start beeping and telling us that tornadoes are likely to form in our area.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

bmorton (170477) | about 6 years ago | (#23047640)

As far as I know, it's not uncommon for the TV to light up like a Christmas tree in the event of an emergency anywhere in the US. However, I'm sure there are many people who have cell phones but don't pay very much attention to broadcast media. Presumably, those sorts of alerts are just as useful to those people.

Re:Opt-out? (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | about 6 years ago | (#23035952)

Its a text message dude this isn't the biggest money grab in the world. Even if they counted it as yours most people wouldnt even get charged for it (100 free text msgs with most phone plans). I think people on /. have seen the government screw people so often that they are growing a bit paranoid. Government is usually incompetent not malicious. Companies are both but they probably loose out on this deal. In the end the messaging service warning people before they get hit by a wall of water seems like a good idea. Adding terrorism and amber alerts (NOT a threat to your person) is stupid, but thats just a cause of incompetence not any malicious plan.

Re:Opt-out? (2, Funny)

VShael (62735) | about 6 years ago | (#23034086)

*ring*

Bob? Our petty cash reserves are low and it's Friday. You know? Hookers and blow-day? Yeah, kidnap a child and send out 3 million amber alerts. That'll raise enough cash to see us for tonights festivities....

Re:Opt-out? (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | about 6 years ago | (#23035906)

I think if i were in a katrina like (disaster) situation i'd like a "Goto high ground or joo gunna die nub -- Tha Government" message. It would be definitely nicer than getting owned. Also i'd likely opt out of the amber alert, which you can do, rtfa.

Don't know about you (1)

DRAGONWEEZEL (125809) | about 6 years ago | (#23038710)

but if I am going to be in a location where they suspect terrorist activity, I'd like to know so I can get the *&^% out!

HA for messagins infrastructures! (3, Insightful)

VincenzoRomano (881055) | about 6 years ago | (#23033760)

This means that the messaging infrastructures are to be really highly available under all circumstances.
Which seems no to be the case at least for GSM/3G cellular networks where these infrastructures are very complex.

Re:HA for messagins infrastructures! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23033998)

Considering that text messages on GSM networks are allowed to take up to 7 days to be delivered, and that there is no guarantee that they will be delivered at all, text messages are a really bad way to alert people about emergencies.

Re:HA for messagins infrastructures! (1)

Rural (136225) | about 6 years ago | (#23034290)

I would guess they plan to use Cell Broadcast (think of it as SMS multicast), the same technology that some GSM operators use to tell you the approximate area (Area Info).

Re:HA for messagins infrastructures! (1)

g0dsp33d (849253) | about 6 years ago | (#23045542)

Also judging by 9/11, there was a huge cell phone outage in the area as there were cell towers on top of the towers (iirc) and there was a massive spike in call attempts. Throwing a mass of txt messages might exaggerate the issue instead of helping.

Secondly, if they are too common people will begin to ignore them. Conversely, if there is a serious threat, the normal media does a decent job of getting the information out. I recall having heard about 9/11 within 20 minutes of the attack even though I was driving to high school some 200 mi away at the time.

Yeah, sure (3, Insightful)

FoolsGold (1139759) | about 6 years ago | (#23033792)

It's only natural mobile networks will become flooded during an emergency that this will prove useless.

Re:Yeah, sure (2, Insightful)

mapkinase (958129) | about 6 years ago | (#23034416)

They become jammed AFTER awareness reached the masses.

NYC was completely jammed on 2001/9/11 for several hours because everybody was calling.

I agree with you with small change:

I guess the system would work good when only few people know what is going on and the lines are not jammed yet. In some situations it is useless, like when the catastrophe have already happened with thousands of texting and more importantly, videoing witnesses. In other situations, like "There is an intercontinental ballistic missile heading San Francisco half hour away from the target", that could be (relatively) helpful.

Re:Yeah, sure (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23039462)

You bet. That would mean 1/2 hour away from the start of a huge party!

Re:Yeah, sure (1)

aadvancedGIR (959466) | about 6 years ago | (#23035896)

Normal SMS could flood the network (I heard of new year messages that needed more that a week to be delivered), but SMS boradcast simply use the common signalisation channel (the one the phones monitor every couple of s to be warned of incoming calls), but instead of "call for phone #xxx, please report on slot n", it reads "good news everyone!" so everyphone monitoring that stations gets the message very efficiently.

Re:Yeah, sure (1)

ilikepi314 (1217898) | about 6 years ago | (#23036724)

That's a possibility, but I can say first-hand that text messages on mobile networks was how we all communicated after Hurricane Katrina, and that was an emergency if I ever saw one. Now maybe in a higher population city there may be problems...

University of Calgary (4, Informative)

Overkill Nbuta (1035654) | about 6 years ago | (#23033870)

Im currently in engineering at the U of C, and this semester they actually implemented this to warn students of situations (anything from fires to the worst case of shootings). This method does make a bit of sense, as traditional ways of warning such as emails or phone calls or TV can take a amount of time to be noticed while Most people notice a text message immediately.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

repapetilto (1219852) | about 6 years ago | (#23033912)

Same deal up here at loyola, theyve got a whole thing set up with emails, text messages, phone calls, probably even something else. Got instituted after the NIU shooting.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

adam.dorsey (957024) | about 6 years ago | (#23033930)

I'm a student at WVU, and we recently implemented a similar system for emergency alerts here. There's a website you check for detailed information (http://emergency.wvu.edu/) and they send out texts and emails if there is an on-campus emergency, major off-campus criminal activity, or severe weather.

Interestingly enough, a few days after this system was implemented, there was a major shooting at a local apartment complex (botched robbery, 1 dead, another injured) and the text system functioned well for short notice, although a few people who signed up didn't get notices.

I suppose this new system could work well if properly run, but if something happens at government level most every other news outlet (TV, Web, etc.) is going to be saturated with info anyway, so it seems kind of redundant.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

djones101 (1021277) | about 6 years ago | (#23034682)

As with any good college system, however, it can and will be abused. As someone who works for an IT Department for a community college, I can vouch for that personally. Once the Marketing Department gets wind of this new way to contact students, they will be all over it like white on rice. A system usefulness is inversely proportional to the number of non-IT people wanting to utilize the system for their own means.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

absoluteflatness (913952) | about 6 years ago | (#23035870)

Virginia Tech has this now as well. It can optionally also send instant messages, email, and call a cell, dorm and/or other phone. It probably does other marginally-useful things as well.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

TGTilde (874930) | about 6 years ago | (#23038806)

We had a system implemented last quarter just like that at Cal Poly SLO. It's an opt-in system. I'm not sure how many people have signed up yet, I haven't. The central area of campus is quite small and a disturbance would be easy to hear and smoke easy to see. Not to mention my engineering building doesn't get cell service inside the rooms so I wouldn't really get it in time to be useful.

Re:University of Calgary (1)

Secret Rabbit (914973) | about 6 years ago | (#23041546)

Except that warning people about shootings is unlikely to cause a rational reaction from the warned. There is a reason why people are supposed to stay where they are until they are "retrieved" by the police. It's called not having targets running around for the shooter to shoot. Not to mention that people running around would also be a problem for the police.

The fact of the matter is that if there is something like a shooting on campus, if you're in the "danger zone", you'll hear the shots long before that text comes in.

It would actually be MUCH more efficient and SAFER to have security "lock down" the building where the shooter is presumed to be (fire doors are rather strong) preventing more students from entering until the police got there. It prevents panic and lets the professionals deal with the situation.

Fraudulent messages? (4, Interesting)

NeuralAbyss (12335) | about 6 years ago | (#23033978)

I'd be curious to see what sort of authentication the networks are pushing for this sort of broadcast message - will third parties be able to forge the sender phone number/name?

I frequently receive spam on my mobile by SMS and "service messages" (SMS with integrated hyperlinks) which purport to be from a textual name rather than a sender telephone number.

Given the propensity for telco networks to be less than secure with regards to CNI information, I'd hope that tighter restrictions on sender CNI in SMS is adopted if this plan goes ahead - with the level of sheeple out there, a targeted social engineering attack against a public event could cause chaos. Take, for example, the WVU emergency alert system mentioned in another comment [slashdot.org] - if someone were to forge a message about a school shooting to a decent number of students, I could quite easily see the day's classes being disrupted. Extrapolate that to a national warning system.. and there's a lot to be done before I'd trust a SMS coming in from "Federal Warning System" regarding a serious incident.

Re:Fraudulent messages? (1)

aadvancedGIR (959466) | about 6 years ago | (#23035974)

You can easily send SMS for free through a web interface and provide whatever name and phone number in the sender fields, so yes, even for a lot of targets. Now, tricking a GSM cell to send a SMS broadcast to all the phones it serves might be a little more complex.

will the cell phone companies make it 100% free... (2, Insightful)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | about 6 years ago | (#23034598)

will the cell phone companies make it 100% free and make it work even when you have texting turned off as I was getting a lot of spam that I was paying $0.10+ a text on my phone.

Re:will the cell phone companies make it 100% free (2, Interesting)

DuctTape (101304) | about 6 years ago | (#23034792)

I had to call Sprint several times to turn off my text messages since I was getting on the order of 100 spam messages a month, resulting in > $10 additional charges. It took a while because:
  • They couldn't believe that someone would not want text messages.
  • They couldn't believe that those messages were spam. After all, how could someone get my phone number? (they started coming on day one) I must have wanted those messages!
  • They couldn't believe that their blacklist tool wasn't working. Every originating number or address I put in kept on receiving those messages.
The third attempt stopped the messages, but only downstream of the message counter, so I was no longer receiving the messages, but they charged me for them anyway. I finally had to use social engineering to get Sprint's secret network support number from them and explain it to a Real Tech what was going on, and he fixed it.

Face it, they're going to try to stop you from taking away their revenue.

Of course I left Sprint.

DT

Philadelphia just rolled this out. (1)

spacefiddle (620205) | about 6 years ago | (#23034832)

Our new head honcho, Mayor Nutter... yes, that it is real name... just implemented this [philly.com] on the 5th.

There are two methods [to sign up]: Either online at www.ReadyNotifyPA.org, or on a cell phone by texting your county code (BUCKS, CHESCO, DELCO, MONTCO or PHILA) and dialing 411911.
411911 indeed. Other than wondering just what the actual volume will be - will i get a (for me, charged) text every time there's a "severe weather alert" i.e. RAIN, frex - do i really wanna give City Hall my cell number? Or is the feeling of extra exposure just an illusion..?

I see a bigger problem (2, Insightful)

ICLKennyG (899257) | about 6 years ago | (#23034972)

I get txt alerts from ESPN/CBS and others on sports scores. The great thing is when I get an alert on Thursday about a football game played on Sunday.

I can envision a world where people are getting Katrina warnings 3 days after the storm hits.

The system is way too ad-hoc and fragile to support mission critical alerts of upcoming disasters.

Info from Verizon side of this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23035152)

Just recently I attended an invitation only Verizon seminar where they did indeed mention this exact system. Couple of notes for you with questions:
1) Security - It isn't the name that is important, the carriers will authenticate the message via IP address.
2) When there is an alert, the message will be sent out by georgraphic region. No matter the carrier or type of device in the area, if the device is able to receive text messages it will receive the alert.
3) This type of message won't necessarily lag the system as the government will be on the white list of all carriers. This will allow them to bypass the text message spam filters and go directly to the pipe.

Re:Info from Verizon side of this (1)

Tacvek (948259) | about 6 years ago | (#23042940)

Just recently I attended an invitation only Verizon seminar where they did indeed mention this exact system. Couple of notes for you with questions: 1) Security - It isn't the name that is important, the carriers will authenticate the message via IP address. 2) When there is an alert, the message will be sent out by georgraphic region. No matter the carrier or type of device in the area, if the device is able to receive text messages it will receive the alert. 3) This type of message won't necessarily lag the system as the government will be on the white list of all carriers. This will allow them to bypass the text message spam filters and go directly to the pipe.
That makes it perfectly clear that verizon would be sending out the messages using the CDMA equivalent of GSM's SMS broadcast messages. That is logical. Nobody could possibly be charged for those text messages, as they would need to be "system" text messages, which are always free, not to mention the fact that due to the broadcast nature of the message it would be physically impossible to track who received the message. The downside is that it is technically impossible to opt out of GSM SMS broadcast messages (and I assume that would be the same with the CDMA equivlent) but software on the device could filter messages out. The problem is that existing phone software lacks a 'filter out EAS/Amber-alert GSM SMS broadcast message' option, and many existing phones will never receive a firmware update to implement such an option.

Mass Hysteria! (1)

raidfibre (1181749) | about 6 years ago | (#23035332)

This sounds like a terrible idea to me. Do we really need, for example, all 600,000 people in Boston to receive a simultaneous "PANIC!" message? I mean, look what happened when we had black boxes with blinking LEDs to contend with!

So I think knowing what's going on is important, but is it logical to tell everyone at exactly the same time?

A step up from the Emergency Email Network? (1)

ColoradoAuthor (682295) | about 6 years ago | (#23036714)

FTA: "The service could be in place by 2010."

Meanwhile, there's http://emergencyeamil.org/ [emergencyeamil.org], which is opt-in. It works pretty well, though they've been slow to update their warning zones when the government (NWS, actually) shifts the boundaries around. They're a public-private partnership, and a significant percentage of states and counties in the U.S. are already signed up.

During peak hours, sometimes I've had emergency warning text messages delayed by over 10 minutes. If the cellular infrastructure is tweaked for the new system, it'll be a good thing: emergency messages can be broadcast to everyone at once, and with a high priority.

Identification (1)

boyfaceddog (788041) | about 6 years ago | (#23036756)

I first heard this an NPR last week as having an opt-in/opt-out feature. How will the feds know who gets the messages? Presuming this only send text messages to citizens (at first)won't they need to have a database of all the IDs?

Or, maybe my tinfoil hat is on too tight.

University Shootings != Natural Disasters (1)

clichescreenname (1220316) | about 6 years ago | (#23037370)

From TFA:

There would be three types of messages, according to the rules.

The first would be a national alert from the president, probably involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The second would involve âoeimminent threatsâ that could include natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or university shootings.

The third would be reserved for child abductions, so-called Amber alerts.
Did anyone else find it a bit odd that "university shootings" are classified under "natural disasters"?

I find this to be a little bit shocking, as I would consider such a thing to be closer in nature to a terrorist attack than a tornado. In fact, in almost all cases (like Virginia Tech) I think that "terrorist attack" would be a perfectly fine classification.

I think the problem here is that the term "terrorists" has become synonymous with "crazy Arabs".

Re:University Shootings != Natural Disasters (1)

zegota (1105649) | about 6 years ago | (#23038180)

I think it's more of a case of poor grammar. The sentence should probably read: "The second would involve imminent threats that could include natural disasters, like hurricanes and tornadoes, or university shootings."

It does work (1)

dedotes (1024755) | about 6 years ago | (#23037620)

I am from cancun mexico, and we do get some hurricanes every now and then, I remember receiving text messages from the government alerting me as to the warning level color at the moment whenever a hurricane came close. It is a pre set code, so most people could figure out if they had to start checking their food and water supplies or start boarding their windows. These messages were simple enough and very informative, I believe it could work in other places or for some other natural disasters.

Ohio State (1)

prestomation (583502) | about 6 years ago | (#23039366)

The Ohio State University does this now on a smaller scale. It's new this year, but they've tested it a couple times and it's entertaining when everyone's phone goes off in a short period of time. It txt's and/or calls(you can choose) everyone who has signed up, emails everyone, and calls all dorm phones.

What about GPS? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23043640)

I hope they include the GPS coordinates. There is nothing worse then getting a message which a computer cannot parse. Somthing like GeoRSS would be good.

Broadcast SMS (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#23100778)

This system could use cell broadcast SMS.

          With regular SMS, you would send a "subscribe" SMS, and then you are added to some huge list of numbers to send the message to.. if there's 1000 on the list, the list is send through the network 1000 times.

          With broadcast SMS, you would send a "subscribe" SMS. The network sends the phone an over-the-air update to subscribe it to a certain broadcast number (they run up to "channel" 65535). Then the network will just send a broadcast message for channel foo -- the message has a sequence number so the same message can be retransmited. Instead of a network trying to send 1000s of copies of a message in addition to the other texting that is already happening, the message can be broadcast like once a second or once every 30 seconds or whatever, and the phone will pick it up as soon as it's turned on/in range.

         
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