Last year, the US wireless telecommunications carriers along with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began rolling out the Commercial Mobile Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts. The system allows government public safety officials to send geographically targeted alerts to users’ smartphones.
Four basic types of alerts can be sent: National Weather Service, Presidential, Amber Alerts, and Imminent Threat alerts.
According to the FEMA website for the system, it is incapable of tracking an individual’s physical location, “as it uses SMS-CB, a broadcast (one-way) technology.”
But Julio Ojeda-Zapata, writing for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, reported last June that “This mobile alert system is designed to flag handset users based on their current locations—not where they live or work. Someone who lives in Saint Paul but is visiting Cincinnati would receive the same alerts residents of that city receive.” Ojeda-Zapata goes on to quote Todd Krause the Twin Cities weather-warning coordinator for the National Weather Service: “‘What the system does is actually follow you around wherever you are going,’ based on users’ proximity to cellular towers.”
And therein lies the rub. Getting timely, informative warning alerts to the populace as quickly as possible in an impending emergency is an unquestionably good thing. But the possibility of simultaneously tracking those users under the guise of making sure they get location-appropriate alerts is an unquestionably bad thing.
So, is the US government tracking your location—or at least the location of your smartphone through this new system? It says no, insisting that it uses the Short Message Service-Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) service, a “one-to-many geographically focused messaging service.” But, the US government also says it doesn’t use torture and the current administration promised to make closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp a top priority. Nonetheless, the SMS-CB system has been in place long enough for any privacy deficiencies to be flagged and publicized. Barring receipt of any new information or new developments, this one goes in the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory file.
On 20 February the system was used for the first time here in the Twin Cities where some smartphone users received an Amber Alert accompanied by a screech. An infant had been kidnapped from south Minneapolis and within minutes a teenager (who had received the alert) placed a 911 call notifying law enforcement of the suspect’s location, according to Julio Ojeda-Zapata’s report for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.
My wife and I both have iPhone 4 smartphones running Apple’s iOS 6.1.2 on AT&T’s 3G network. Neither of us received the Amber Alert.