Emergency alerts from President Obama on your mobile phone?

Barack Obama mobile phoneMobile phone users could soon find themselves receiving emergency text messages warning them of terrorist attacks and natural disasters, under plans announced in the United States yesterday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have announced the “Personal Localized Alerting Network” (PLAN) which will see new handheld devices fitted with special chips to receive the alerts, which will be sent by state and local authorities. The system is designed to supersede all other phone traffic, In an attempt to avoid delays.

According to the FCC, users will be able to opt out of all alerts apart from those sent by the US president.

(What makes messages from the US president so special, I wonder?)

In many ways this can be viewed as a logical progression from the other methods that authorities have used to communicate with their citizens in times of emergency – such as alerts via television and radio broadcasts. The wide adoption of cellphones makes it a natural way to pass on an important official message whether it be about a flood, a fire or a missing child.

But an obvious concern about the PLAN system is this: if it’s an easy way to communicate a message to many people in a particular city or area, could it be abused by cybercriminals?

Our hope is that appropriate measures will be put in place to tightly control and authenticate any messages which are broadcast to cellphone users. But it certainly would be an attractive target for scammers, spammers and mischief-makers.

After all, in 2009 Barack Obama’s own Twitter account was compromised by spammers who posted a message to his many thousands of followers:

Barack Obama's Twitter account compromised by spammers

The phone alert service is to be made available by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. New York City and Washington DC seem likely to be amongst the first locations to activate the PLAN network, with plans to have the system in place by the end of 2011. Other cities and network carriers are expected to follow during 2012.

By the way, while writing this article I stumbled across the official Twitter account for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS): @NTASAlerts:

NTASAlerts on Twitter, but no tweets

It’s a verified account but I probably won’t be following it.

After all, to date it has managed to post a grand total of zero tweets.