Cell Phones Could be Used for Emergency Alerts

Dennis Faas's picture

Remember those annoying TV interruptions testing the Emergency Broadcast System? Well, now federal regulators have approved a plan that would make your cell phone part of the emergency alert system by allowing blanket text messages to be sent to all cell subscribers within a given geographic area.

Although cellular customers would be allowed to "opt-out" of the plan, the Warning Alert and Response Network Act of 2006 required the FCC to upgrade the ways the public can be alerted about emergencies. With more than 200 million cell phones in use in the U.S., and with texting becoming more popular, it's a workable plan. (Source: nytimes.com)

Under the plan, three types of text messages would be used. The first would involve a national-scale alert from the President; this might include such alerts on a nuclear attack or major natural disaster. The second type of message would involve an even more immediate threat, including tornadoes, tidal waves, or school shootings. The third type would be reserved for "Amber alerts".

Such emergency alert systems have been in place on a more local basis for some time. Many universities already deploy cell phone text warnings and California enacted a state wide program a year ago. Under the California program, for example, cell phone text warnings augment broadcast alerts and "reverse 911s" (broadcast landline calls from authorities). (Source: insidebayarea.com)

Not everyone thinks cell phone alerts are going to be a good thing. Cell phone emergency alerts might cause panics or, worse for some, lawsuits. After all, what does an effective message of an imminent nuclear attack look like?

What's clear is that the ubiquity of cell phone use is opening up cell phone "2.0 style" applications. In addition, there may be new opportunities to threaten privacy; locating or triangulating on the location of cell phone users is already something many law enforcement agencies routinely petition the courts to allow (although the Bush administration was rebuked for supporting this without probable cause). Other applications include built-in GPS locating, call monitoring (by parents), quick polls, and lotteries. (Source: mobiledia.com)

It makes sense to utilize cell phones for emergency notifications. But it's equally clear that cell-phones will be an agent catalyzing a 'brave new world' of public/private policy confrontations.

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