On Wednesday 3 October 2018 at 2:18pm Eastern Time, Americans let out a simultaneous groan: they had received their first direct text from Donald Trump. The message read “Presidential Alert. THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed,” and was indeed the first message of the recently launched initiative by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to let people know when national crises are happening. After the message was sent, social media was aflame, with lamentations of “How do I unsubscribe?”, “Ugh, is there any way to opt out?”, and general complaints about the US president’s capability to blast their home screens whenever he sees fit.
Despite the danger of allowing an overwhelmingly unpopular president to access your phone without your consent, a national alert system is not a bad idea. In fact, it’s probably a good one that could ultimately save lives – in fairly significant numbers. And despite the fact that it’s been sloppily labelled as dystopian, or Black Mirror-esque, with the government knowing your information and potentially messaging you at any time of day, this an initiative that takes technology and actually uses it to advance society and make it safer.
National alert systems already exist in plenty of countries across the world. Across 17 European countries, there is a godawfully named agreement, the “Co-operation Group for the Prevention of, Protection Against, and Organisation of Relief in Major Natural and Technological Disasters”, otherwise known as EUR-OPA (a group within the Council of Europe). While it is predominantly a shared intelligence unit for disasters, the legislation setting up EUR-OPA also put in place an alert system that sends out alerts to member states’ national security teams when there is an earthquake, so as to prepare for disasters. Not only that, Amber (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) alerts – a text alerting people when a child has gone missing in their area – have existed in the US for years. A direct alert system is nothing new for the United States, even if it can come straight from the typing fingers of the president.
And this is where a lot of the flack for this alert system comes from: the idea that Trump, in particular, is gaining unhindered access to everyone’s phones. But this isn’t the case. As was widely reported when the test was announced, Trump will not be able to treat the alert system as an extension of his Twitter feed. Instead, a laboriously detailed protocol has been put in place to comb through what can actually be sent, alongside sharing access to the system with several other government departments. Plus, this isn’t a Trump initiative – it’s something that’s been in the works for nearly 50 years. Ahead of the test message sent out on Wednesday, Wired published a piece detailing the bizarre history of the national alert, dating its formal entry into the American political system to the mid 1970s. The people’s whose phones are affected are simply the ones that are both in range of a cell tower at the time the alert is sent out and have a mobile phone provider who has agreed to partake in the government Wireless Emergency Alert System.
Obviously, like any technology, things can go wrong. During a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency back in January, at the height of US-North Korea tensions, Hawaiians received a false alert that a ballistic missile was en route to the island – with the literal text “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” attached to it. Understandably, the message caused tens of thousands of people to brick it. However, with every innovation, teething issues are inevitable. If we scrap national programmes the second they try to start, then we’re inevitably going to hold ourselves back from things that could have enormous benefits once they get past their nascent stages. And especially when it comes to government tech, a grace period for fuck-ups is, unfortunately, a necessary step to get to that worthwhile end point of smooth functionality.
Despite what happened in Hawaii, the test on Wednesday went off as planned (without any panic over an impending nuclear apocalypse), with hopes high that it could work well in the future. An alert system could more quickly warn people about forest fires, imminent earthquakes, or terrorist attacks, with huge potential to save lives just by getting information to people sooner. And, even though it’s been warned against by emergency officials, Americans do have the option to opt out of this alert system if they so choose, making it less of a Big Brother restraint and more of a merely heavily encouraged safety device.
Although it’s early days, with the system yet to be used in an actual disaster, the potential for saving lives is undeniable. And whether or not it’s being sent by Donald Trump, this simple and logical embrace is something to be welcomed.