The Internet Broke Emergency Alerts

It’s hard to imagine a worse way to be awoken on a Saturday morning in paradise than with a blaring klaxon accompanying a government alert about an inbound ballistic missile attack. But that’s exactly what happened to more than 1.5 million residents of and visitors to Hawaii this morning.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” the emergency alert read, in all-caps, on smartphones. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Hawaii residents tuned-in to television or radio heard an even more threatening message, made even worse by its monotone, computer-synthesized delivery. “The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Except, it was indeed a drill—there was no missile threat, and the alert had been sent in error during what the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called a “regular system drill.” Easily screencapped, the mobile alerts spread like wildfire within minutes. On Twitter, Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Hawaii’s second district in the U.S. House of Representatives, sent her own all-caps alert, desperately trying to assuage citizens and visitors that the message was erroneous: “HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII.”

War and politics notwithstanding, what makes such a false alert possible in the first place? Most Americans don’t know how emergency alerts work. Both the infrastructure for sending these emergency notifications and the media ecosystem into which they arrive have changed substantially since the Cold War, when the shadow of nuclear annihilation last felt near.

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In 1997, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) came online, replacing the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which had been in place since 1963. To those old enough to remember broadcast television and radio, the EBS was a ubiquitous part of media life during the Cold War, which was also the era of television as a predominant information-delivery mechanism. Like every system, the EBS issued regular tests, and every 20th-century American citizen associated the television or radio voiceover “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System” with the ubiquitous shadow of global catastrophe.

Both EBS and EAS were designed to allow the president of the United States a channel to communicate quickly to the American public in the event of national crisis. That mostly meant war in the early days of EBS. Later, the system was used to provide notice about other sorts of emergencies, including natural disasters, severe weather, and other local civic emergencies. EAS formalized that function, which had become the primary purpose of EBS before its retirement. EAS also addressed the profusion of broadcast channels present in the mid-1990s as compared to the 1960s: not just AM and FM radio and broadcast television, but also cable, fiber, digital, and satellite television, satellite radio, and more.

In 2006, after criticism surrounding government preparedness and response during Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush established a new program, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS integrated EAS and the other government …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of


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