By: Garry L. Hamilton


That’s how they intend to sell this thing? A cute name and a slogan? Don’t we already have a cute name for this? SPAM?

Hmm, let’s see . . .

…cell phones equipped with special chips and software.

Media trying to sound competent. The “special” chips will be part of any current production smart phone.

And . . .

…the importance of getting clear and accurate information to the public during a crisis

Given the very recent “presidential” information disseminated by the Executive Branch in the wake of the Bin Laden episode, does anyone else find this just falling-down-funny?

For now, the alerts are capable on certain high-end cell phones but starting next year, all cell phones will be required to have the chip that receives alerts.

Yeah. That was predictable. Well, at least that will drive the cost of cheap cell phones up. I was really troubled by the preponderance of cheap junk phones on the market. They’re doing their best to help solve that problem.

So who was at the helm when this happened?

This new emergency alert system is part of the Warning Alert and Response Network Act that was approved by Congress in 2006.

Was that before or after the election cycle of 2006?

So, let me think a minute, using what little I know about cell phones…

To make this work, you would need either a list of the cell phone numbers in the target area (a subscribed list) or you would have to have a central monitoring point that is “always aware” of what phones are in the area. This isn’t that hard, considering that the cell tower hand-off protocol requires that the tower system be able to identify phones moving through their zone in order to make a seamless hand-off to the next tower, so the data is already in the tower farm. The phone switching network has to keep track of this as well, so that phone calls can be routed. In truth, the phone system always knows (in general) where your phone is, otherwise you couldn’t receive calls or text messages. So the “central monitoring point” already exists (phone switching), all you would need for an emergency SPAM broadcast is a way to inject messages into the system to “all currently active phones” in a region.

Now, that’s not a two-way Big Brother thing, that’s a one-way “announcing” conduit. However, in the spirit of Orson Welles, it occurs to me that there are ways to abuse a one-way conduit. Imagine what you could do with a little ear piece that allowed you to “talk” directly to each cow in a herd. As the “cow whisperer” you could direct them, soothe them or stampede them. And so it is with something like this. Only now you’re the “mob whisperer” with the ability to inform, alert, soothe, or stampede the population of a region. Not that anyone would ever broadcast misinformation/disinformation or incite panic using a system like this.

Now, if I allow my imagination to run a little with this, I could contrive some way for this to permit spying on citizens, but that would be gilding the lily: the systems for spying on folks using their phones are already in place. All they have to do is “wonder” loudly enough if you’re involved in terrorism, and the existing laws and phone tracking systems are sufficient to that purpose.

I’m more concerned with the “mob whisperer” aspect. That, and this other little thing: security.

In the hands of a benign agency, a tool that reaches virtually everyone (better coverage than either radio or TV) can do some good. However, given that we’ve had ne’er-do-wells hack into places like the DoD and Pentagon, I worry that the system could be hijacked by malicious pranksters.

I will admit, though, that there is a significant “creep” factor in this.

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