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Florida’s chief financial officer recently criticized the Wireless Emergency Alerts system—which blasted out test messages to Americans in early October—and called for the Federal Communications Commission to “immediately cease” using the system.
“In my opinion, there is absolutely zero reason that the federal government needs to notify millions of Americans at the exact same moment,” state CFO Jimmy Patronis wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to the Federal Communications Commission, which coordinates the tests.
“The federal government scared about 70% of Americans with that alert, and in my opinion, this was government overreach at its finest,” Patronis wrote. “I don’t like systems where the federal government can access Americans directly to their smartphones.”
He went on to express distaste for “any Administration (regardless of party) having the ability to DM Americans without their permission.”
The test at issue was broadcast across cell phones, radios, and TVs at 2:20pm on Oct. 4. Mobile carriers can decide whether they’ll carry the alerts, and not all phone models can receive them. Individuals can also opt out of or silence most messages and the audio tone that accompanies them. “This is especially important information for people in unsafe domestic situations who use a hidden device,” Mashable noted in October.
The mobile alerts—typically used by local, state, and national authorities to flag severe weather, evacuation notices, and missing children—have been around since 2012 as an extension of the Emergency Alert System that broadcasts public safety messages on TV and radio.
Such alerts shouldn’t be misunderstood as a personally targeted text message, Jeannette Sutton, director of the Emergency and Risk Communication Message Testing Laboratory at the University of Albany, SUNY, told Tech Brew in an email.
“WEA is not a DM—it is a message broadcast to digital that is dependent upon your device’s location near the cell tower,” she said. “The government is not tracking you with WEAs. They don’t even know how many people still have WEA turned on or off.”
Sutton emphasized that mobile alerts are valuable for reaching people without requiring them to opt in, and they have a higher success rate than ringing home landlines or expecting people to see alerts in a cluttered social media environment.
“WEA is one of the best possible ways to reach everyone who is in harm’s way,” she said.