Nationwide 'Presidential Alert' Texts: Not the Best Idea

Most of us got a "presidential alert" text today. Is that something we really want?


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

Hundreds of millions of Americans received a "Presidential Alert" on their cell phone today. Specifying that "no action is needed," the message explained that the alert was "A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Communications Commission originally scheduled the test for September, but they pushed it back due to Hurricane Florence.

So what was the point? The message you likely received (unless you turned your phone off) was the first ever nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. It's the same system that sends out Amber Alerts (for missing children) and weather warnings. While those can be turned off, the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network Act stipulates that the "Presidential Alert" cannot.

FEMA didn't force wireless carriers to participate, but as NBC News notes, most of them did anyway.

The test seemed to go off without a hitch. But that doesn't mean it was a good idea.

No, President Donald Trump is probably not going to use the alert to launch into crazed rants like he does on Twitter. And this isn't as new as it may seem: The technology has been around since 2012. Still, it's a bit unsettling to know that the federal government can reach you whenever it wants—and perfectly reasonable to wonder whether in 30 years we'll be getting texts from the government about more than just national emergencies.

It's also worth noting that such emergency alert systems are not infallible. In January, the Hawaiian islands were thrown into a state of panic when a worker accidentally sent out a statewide ballistic missile warning.

Finally, FEMA doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to, well, anything. Maybe, just maybe, putting the oft-maligned federal agency in charge of a nationwide emergency alert system isn't the best idea.