Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
Cellphones Government Handhelds Privacy United States Your Rights Online

Cellphones Get Government Chips For Disaster Alert 374

Jeremiah Cornelius writes "The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, said the Commercial Mobile Alert System that Congress approved in 2006 will direct messages to cellphones in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other serious emergency. There will be at least three levels of messages, ranging from a critical national alert from the president to warnings about impending or occurring national disasters to alerts about missing or abducted children. The alert would show up on the phone's front screen, instead of the traditional text message inbox, and arrive with a distinct ring and probably a vibration. People will be able to opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Cellphones Get Government Chips For Disaster Alert

Comments Filter:
  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:45PM (#36088356) Journal

    Yes, Officer, I was just reading this text while I was driving because it might have been from the PRESIDENT!

    • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:49PM (#36088410) Journal

      More seriously, it's kind of annoying that the system for telling you to turn around and run away because of tornadoes or nuclear explosions or big car accidents or whatever requires you to read texts while driving. (I can't do that - I need to wear my reading glasses to read texts, and need to not wear them to be able to drive.) I hope they'll also use the Emergency Broadcast System if they're playing games with texts. And it's annoying that you can turn off local emergency alerts (which you might actually need to receive), but can't turn off texts from the President (which are either about Nuclear War, in which case a text message is rather too late, or else they're political spam.)

      • natural selection will solve the reading glasses while driving problem.

      • (which are either about Nuclear War, in which case a text message is rather too late, or else they're political spam.)

        I thought CAN-SPAM specifically exempts political messages as being spam? Wait a minute...

    • 1984 (Score:2, Flamebait)

      "People will be able to opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts."

      And, the officer responds, "You damned well BETTER read/listen to the President's message! Have a good day, Citizen!"

      I can't be the only person here who thought "Orwelle" when I read that quoted sentence.

      • Next step is to make it illegal to turn off your phone (in case the President has anything to say).

        After that the 'freedom from terror' tracking system is fully enabled...with automated speech recognition enabled on all calls.

    • This sounds just like security cameras designed to thwart terrorists being used to catch stop sign violators instead. Or federal agents looking for illegal immigrants busting people for possession of small quantities of pot instead.


      I predict this plan will fail like the V-chip []...

  • by Haven ( 34895 )

    Now I know exactly how I am going to find out about the world coming to an end.

  • by Rockoon ( 1252108 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:48PM (#36088392)
    The last thing you read will be "U R WTFBBQ!!!"
  • Can't we OPT IN for ANY of the above instead?

    Sheesh. I want my cellphone to be a Phone. not an internet device, not a tracker, not a web platform, not an MP3 player, Not a camera, not an OMGODZERS ALERT ALERT ALERT!!!!!! - Just a phone. that's it, that's all.

    I do not to be properly alerted when I'm out riding my motorcycle in backwater, USA .

    • by jpapon ( 1877296 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:57PM (#36088510) Journal
      Like you, I yearn for the days of yore. Back when men were men, books were made out of paper, and people died from disasters the old fashioned way... surprised.
    • Relax! Didn't you notice, this time they actually did think of the children!

      Granted, not all of them, only the abducted ones, but it's a start, so it must be a good thing.

    • Re:What the? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by MoonBuggy ( 611105 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:08PM (#36088642) Journal

      So buy a basic phone, opt out from the alert messages, and you're done. Sure, it sounds a bit unnecessary, but it does no harm if unused and is potentially helpful if it is used - that's better than can be said for a lot of things your taxes are funding. If the 'presidential warning' system gets overused (and I'd estimate more than once every decade is overuse) then you've got a legitimate complaint. Emergency warnings seem to be one of the few areas that the government don't have a history of screwing up, so I'll grudgingly give them the benefit of the doubt here.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TubeSteak ( 669689 )

        Sure, it sounds a bit unnecessary, but it does no harm if unused and is potentially helpful if it is used

        Unless we have the blueprint of the chip and a copy of the sourcode it is running, you don't really know what harm it might do.

        Call me paranoid, but after the warrantless wireless scandal, I'm not at all inclined to trust the government when it comes to our communications network.

        • I'd say mistrust of the government is quite reasonable given their track record! Oddly, the FCC page doesn't mention any chip - it talks about carriers sending out the messages, in which case I don't see why they wouldn't be received by the normal radio in the phone, and simply tagged in such a way that the firmware would display them differently to normal messages. The Boston Globe seems pretty distinct about the fact that it's done in a combination of hardware and software, but I can't possibly work out w

          • a specific government chip would be pointless: your carrier can already probably tell your phone to do whatever they want and they track you constantly and the government can tell your carrier what to do.

            They don't need a chip to track you or listen in to your calls since they can already do that.

        • Re:What the? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @10:06PM (#36089798)
          I'd see a separate vector against iconoclasts. Imagine if jailbreaking your phone was a federal felony because it could be used to block the required messages. Who needs to persecute some jailbreak groups if you can get the government to bust them for you and put them in jail, in addition to ordering the reparations you wanted.
      • by praxis ( 19962 )

        Depends on if you include testing the system a "use". Annoying on the radio...super annoying on a phone.

        • This is what it did to me on TV the other day....I have a huge buffer built up in the Celtics Heat game. I wasn't recording it, just pausing it when I went to the kitchen, or to do laundry, or when someone calls. In the middle it does the storm alert, and more buffer. I missed most of the second half.

          Not saying it shouldn't exist, just that it really pissed me off that night. I know, all I had to do was hit record and it would have kept everything.
      • But you can't completely opt out of the Presidential level alert.
        Don't worry, I'm sure that nobody will bother investing the time or energy to crack a system that would allow sending out of spam without any way for the users to screen it. Like that sounds totally useless, I can't imagine ANY way to make money with such a system.

  • I'm always a little surprised when I hear about the government doing something it should be doing. The system works!

    • you're overjoyed the government has implemented the telescreen of 1984 ?

      I'm not, the government need to be reduced to an impotent little entity that has little or no effect on the economy, daily life, my security other than marshalling an army if or when we are attacked (a real war, not these "actions" of the past 50 years). How evil and dangerous, this thing and the monster that our federal government has become.
      • Such a notification is intended for exactly that purpose. And you're talking to an anarchist, so you don't need to try to convince me that the government's bad news.

  • by gandhi_2 ( 1108023 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:50PM (#36088426) Homepage

    it is hard to argue against the idea of the "Amber Alert", but everyone should go read up about the false alarms and abuses of the system.

    luckily, we are already getting de-sensitized to alerts from our phones.

    • it is hard to argue against the idea of the "Amber Alert", but everyone should go read up about the false alarms and abuses of the system.

      luckily, we are already getting de-sensitized to alerts from our phones.

      When I hear about an "Amber Alert" I think Fringe Division had the right idea.

  • I wonder what level of geographical specificity is possible? Hopefully this will broadcast to selected towers instead of selected phone numbers.

    And hopefully the President is careful with "Reply All".

    • Given that the Chief Executives of most companies can't seem to comprehend BCC, I don't put much faith in the CE of the country.

    • Re:Specificity (Score:5, Informative)

      by cbunix23 ( 1119459 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @10:28PM (#36089896)

      I wonder what level of geographical specificity is possible? Hopefully this will broadcast to selected towers instead of selected phone numbers.

      I work on the Alcatel-Lucent product being used by AT&T, VZW, Sprint, and others. I've been involved with this product since day one. Alert areas can be as small as one cell, or it can be the entire United States. Target areas can be based on geocodes (states, counties, some cities, FEMA regions, NWS regions, and some others), polygons, circles. How FEMA and NWS end up using it is an open question, but I get the impression most of the alerts they will generate will go out at the county level. Just like the "tornado sirens" now. This may get refined over time to smaller areas as they gain experience with the system.

      • Thanks for the info. It sounds like it is done geographically, and there's not a big federal list of each person's phone number? I.e. they don't know who they are sending the alert to, except "everybody in this location"?
  • Now if only they would legislate a government mandated hand-holder for crossing the street and perhaps under-bed anti-boogyman cameras and I'll finally feel completely secure. Truly a win for safety and democracy.
    • ...a government mandated hand-holder for crossing the street

      There's one of those at the crosswalk near the local elementary school. She's very pretty, with her stop sign and orange vest, but she refuses to hold my hand when I cross :-(

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And you people still think the terrorists haven't won?

    • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:24PM (#36088766)
      No shit. We have a "Department of Homeland Security" (without irony) cranking out this kind of shit every day. Because we must protect Der Vaterland from unnamed (foreign and domestic) evil menaces who want to kill us all. Hey, at least the Terror Level is permanently (only) "orange". I'm afraid if it ever gets to "red" we're going to have to start rounding up Japs, Jews and Gypsies - or at least keep a really really really close eye on them.
  • by snsh ( 968808 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:54PM (#36088466)

    Every Amber Alert I've seen was related to simple custody disputes among mothers, fathers, and relatives. The kids are not in real danger, but sometimes on TV they claim danger because the kid is on insulin or Ritalin or something.

  • Sounds pretty much like warning system for earthquakes, that shows up as an urgent message on practically all phones in Japan.

    The back-end is still probably going to be SMS/MMS based (FCC document vaguely mentions the future ability to send audio/video with these messages).
    As long as it's not over-used (say, blasting everyone with "flood warning" messages every time there is a flood warning would be kinda annoying -- I already know that as soon as it rains, everything in my county is under "flood warning")

  • That's a pretty neat idea, and I can see a lot of great uses for it.

    However, it's also worrisome from a privacy perspective. Unlike the EBS/EAS which floods all channels with a warning, this system requires the broadcaster to know a basic vicinity people are in. If there's an announcement telling people below 14th street Manhattan to evacuate (like on 9/11), how will they know who to message unless the phone company or FEMA also has everyone's latest locations already listed in a database? The announcement

    • by Dthief ( 1700318 )
      I am completely against this, but they could just have cell tower X send info to anyone who is connected to it. Thus anonymity is mostly maintained and no information needs to be used that would normally require a warrant.

      However, I doubt they will choose a method of delivery which minimizes the amount of information they get.

    • by jpapon ( 1877296 )
      Just because they can access your location to figure out if you need an alert doesn't mean they can use it to track you as part of a criminal investigation. That's like saying that because the fire department can bust into your house to save you, the police can bust into your house to search it.
    • The limited range of cell towers neatly fulfils the localisation requirement without any need for tracking. Just tell the towers in the affected region to broadcast to all devices in range - if your phone isn't within the coverage area of those towers, you won't get the message.

    • Your local cell tower would broadcast it to everyone in range. Sending individual messages to every phone would take far too long.

  • If anyone is qualified to tell me about a disaster, it would be the government. Nobody does/is/makes/exploits/advertises/promotes disasters like they do. Personally, I can't wait to hear the tech support calls about why we're getting Kansas' tornado warnings here in Colorado and who will be sued over the mass chaos sure to ensue.
    • A few decades ago I was driving across the country, and there was a bad thunderstorm while I was driving through Iowa. The radio was saying "tornadoes sighted in this county, run away!" "tornadoes sighted in that county, run away!". Did my AAA road map have county names on it? Nope :-) Eventually the rain got heavy enough that we pulled over because we couldn't see the road well enough, but it was kind of annoying.

      • Corollary: traffic alerts that include only exit names, not numbers. I don't expect commuter reports to cater to out-of-towners, but I wish that "turn-around-there's-a-herd-of-cattle-in-the-freeway" alerts (especially on overhead signs) did.
  • by mr100percent ( 57156 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:59PM (#36088540) Homepage Journal

    Smacks of V for Vendetta to me. "You designed it, sir, you wanted it foolproof. You said every television in London!"

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:02PM (#36088568)
    I have only one question: Will this standard be open for public inspection?
  • I wonder if they have thought out the security of this system. Sending a message to nearly every person in the United States at the same time would be an amazing hack. Is it supposed to be all automated, or does each provider have to get the message from FEMA and then manually send it out on their network?
  • by ChipMonk ( 711367 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:03PM (#36088588) Journal
    One: a single point of failure. One evil-doer + one compromise in the system = panic from false alarm = ignoring future alarms.

    Two: replies to that many messages will turn into a back-jam on the SMS.

    Does Washington DC care how badly they cock it up? Of course not.
  • those terror alerts are so useful... i am so happy that i will be forced to answer them now on my cellphone.

    also, id love it if the TSA could blast-email us with photos of 'suspected persons'.

    maybe we can even 'crowdsource' the body scanners at airports, and make a face book 'app' out of it! wouldnt that be fun?

  • Disable it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sv_libertarian ( 1317837 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:10PM (#36088656) Journal
    Wonder if there will be an easy way to disable the chip without ruining the whole phone, or perhaps in Android at least a software hack to completely turn it off. I don't want to get messages from .gov on my hardware without consenting to it.
    • Let me play devil's advocate for a moment; the Emergency Broadcast Network routinely cuts into all broadcast TV and radio channels and does weekly tests. People, including myself complain that it interrupts regularly-scheduled programming for about 30 seconds, but it happens every week anyway. This is supposedly the same thing just put onto cell phones.

      • RAGE (Score:4, Informative)

        by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:25PM (#36088774) Homepage Journal

        If they start testing it on my cellphone that often I'm going to pretty much go berserk.

      • Difference is, my phone is a two way communications device that can be uniquely linked to me in various ways. My TV or radio is not. To me this is akin to being told I can't stop a government agent from knocking at my door with a message for me. I don't want them knocking at my door with an important message, and I don't want them sending a message to my phone. Go away. I'm quite capable of opting in for alert services if I want. This is just a form of feel good security theater.
      • Weekly tests are run individually at each station, and are not required to be automatically triggered. Programming should never be interrupted by a weekly test unless the station operator chooses to interrupt programming. At the radio stations I worked at, it was always placed into a regular break specifically to not cause an interruption.
      • Your cell phone can track and be remotely activitated to monitor your conversations. A message appearing to be sent to all could be sent to a few to manipulate them. This is the Telescreen of Orwell's 1984 False flag attack enablement, is what this is.
      • by PRMan ( 959735 )
        And it wasn't even used on 9/11... If that wasn't the time to use it, I really don't know what is. The system has gone off in error more times than on purpose.
    • Well import an unlocked phone from europe, or a cheap chinese phone.
      Of course they would have to make imported unchipped phones illegal, for safety of course.
    • by Ruke ( 857276 )
      I'm curious, why are you so opposed to receiving messages about emergency conditions in your area? Is there a pragmatic reason that you don't want to receive earthquake warnings, or are you just opposed to this in particular because you think that you should oppose the government in general?
      • I'm opposed to be told I *must* receive these messages. I am opposed to having to opt out of having someone contact me via my two way communications device that I may not want to be contacted over. I am opposed to being compelled to pay extra for compliant hardware, and that my provider may charge me extra to recoup costs associated with participating in this program. It's the loss of *choice* I oppose. But some people prefer to have choices made for them. I prefer to make them myself. And I would prefe
    • Re:Disable it (Score:5, Informative)

      by mtxmorph ( 669251 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:59PM (#36089014)
      I don't know where the article gets this "chip" idea from -- that is completely bogus.

      The system uses the standard cell broadcast system (CBS) as its backend, and most phones have supported that forever. It is basically an application which sits on top of CBS.
  • Tinfoil hat time (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:20PM (#36088724)
    I wonder what other "features" this chip will have. In the land of the free, you are free to do as you are told.
    • Why would they bother slipping in extra secret features. It is a chip being put in a device that can already track you and listen in on you. Adding any extra bonus rights infringement just increases their costs and risk of being caught.
  • by QuasiSteve ( 2042606 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:22PM (#36088746)

    The Netherlands has such a system on standard text messages. The broadcasting agency in question simply selects what region to broadcast an SMS-alert to, and all cellphones within that region (basically the ones currently registered to given towers) get the SMS if the user signed up for the type of alert in question (though some can override, i.e. in case of major disaster.. say a chlorine spill).

    Before the text messages, they used a different system - the SMS-cell broadcast channels. Many older phones are capable of receiving these, but most users aren't signed up for the channels in question. Many newer phones don't even offer an interface to this anymore. Hence the switch to SMS.
    Most of the channels are also not used by providers in NL. They figured out that they could get more money by offering information for-pay, or letting for-pay SMS operators pay them, than giving the information for free. I.e. current local time, weather, etc. The only one that seems to be consistently available is channel 050; area code. Even though NL hardly has area code segmentation anymore, and certainly not for cellphones, it's still reported, and crossing into some other municipality does cause a cell broadcast notification on my older phone.

    Long story short - why do they want a separate chip, exactly?

    • by AndroSyn ( 89960 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:27PM (#36088798) Homepage

      Long story short - why do they want a separate chip, exactly?

      Nowhere on the site linked in the story does it say anything about phones requiring any sort of chip. Basically the important part of the system is the secure interface between government and the wireless providers. In short this is more like the EAS system, but for mobile phones. Chances are most network carriers *will* implement this over SMS.

  • by wkk2 ( 808881 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:24PM (#36088764)

    The messages need to be digitally signed or we are going to get spam claiming to be from the president. It also needs to be better designed than weather radios. For example, I can turn off thunderstorm watch alerts but not tornado watch alerts. I might understand requiring warnings but not watches. It cries wolf, in the middle of hot muggy nights, so often it gets turned off.

  • Given the speed in which /. as identified cell tower pushing as the best way to implement this idea, we can be assured that the government will do something else.

  • No legitimate use (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Man ( 684 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:35PM (#36088856) Homepage

    Can anyone come up with an example of a "national disaster" (i.e., a disaster affecting most or all of the contiguous United States) in which any significant part of the telephone network would still be functioning? Because I can't. All sub-extinction-level disasters are inherently regional and nearly all are local. As an example, Japan just suffered a colossal earthquake and 15-meter tsunami... and yet despite the catastrophic loss of life and property, nearly all major damage is confined to a few prefectures; many parts of the country didn't even feel it. And Japan is about the size of California.

    But go ahead, prove me wrong: come up with a disaster that takes out Miami and Seattle but leaves the phones intact.

    • by macshit ( 157376 )
      Tornado party?
    • There's a pretty simple example that proves you wrong, you even mentioned it in your post: Japan's warning system.

      Here's a pretty good article about it:,8599,2059780,00.html []

      In principle, I think this is a very good idea. I'm not American and I wish we (Canada) had something like this in place, I think it's stupid the US doesn't yet. Everyone here is raging about the privacy / spam concerns, but do you really think that'll end up being a problem? It'll be a one way pu

  • Why does a mobile need a chip to do this? Any provider can send me messages. They do that when I go to another country, or when their prices change for example.
    Why not simply set up a server somewhere with "urgent messages" and let the providers broadcast them to every phone currently logged into their network?
    They seem to have the infrastructure to do that already.

    Actually the link in the OP doesn't mention a chip, only a network. What's up with this?

  • by Panaflex ( 13191 ) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {ognidlaivivnoc}> on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:46PM (#36088938)

    First off, there are no new chips required... this standard is designed to operate off existing 3gpp type interfaces over gsm/cdma/etc.. The standard is pretty open ended on the handset as far as protocols, only specifying that the message be presented in a an attention getting way.

    The interesting thing I think is how to secure the federal gateway... I'm guessing they'll use a dedicated frame relay from the federal CMAS system to the commercial gateways.

    These standards are being published by ANSI, they are J-STD-100, J-STD-101, J-STD-102. You may be able to find some of the documents on the web site.

    If you've got $850 bucks laying around, you can read all three interface specifications yourself below:
    Device presentation specs: []

    Federal CMAS gateway specification (http specs): []

    Federal CMAS gateway specification (testing specs): []

  • I read that as Cellphones Get Government Chips For Dissenter Alert. I briefly tough that the American government was now openly fascist. Happily it was just a case of beer based dyslexia.

  • Headline is wrong and misleading. CMAS is just an emergency broadcast message originating from the cell networks similar to SMS/text messages today but for broadcast rather than P2P. As stated in summary there are three alert levels of which the user can opt out of the two lower levels. This will be used for things like amber alerts (lowest level) up to high priority presidential alerts. It takes some time to get into phones as the baseband chip makers need to implement the protocol stack (Qualcomm, et
  • by Nyder ( 754090 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @09:34PM (#36089640) Journal

    no messages from the president that took over TV & Radio. Closes I've ever seen was when Reagen was shot, but that wasn't a message (well, it was a message to Reagen) to the people.

    Shit, the first Gulf War is probably the only thing I've ever seen that took over almost all the TV Stations.

    No, the president doesn't need a direct communicans with me. Never has, never will.

    If he needs me to fix his computer, he can call me like everyone else.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!