Text message may be coming from president
If you think the era of “Big Brother” is getting too close, then you are likely to be disturbed by a new government system called PLAN.
That is short for Personal Localized Alerting Network.
That sounds innocuous - and it actually is. It is an offshoot of something we are already all familiar with - the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which we see on our TV screens and hear on the radio to tell us about bad weather alerts and other potential emergency situations.
If you are like me, the EAS emergency warnings can be annoying, especially if they are just a test of the system. But most people would probably agree that when there is a real potential emergency, they are useful.
A little known aspect of that national alert System - which all broadcasters are required to participate in - is the ability for it to be used by the president of the United States. The national warning system - which was put in place in 1997 - can allow the nation's leader to speak to everyone within minutes, although it has never been used for that purpose.
PLAN takes that ability a step further. It will allow the president and other officials to directly text to any American's cell phone either on a nationwide basis or on a very localized basis.
The system was announced this week by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the same agency that oversees the EAS along with the Federal Communications Commission.
The first area to get the PLAN system will be New York City by the end of the year, which is appropriate given that the breakdown of communications during the Sept. 11 attacks is one reason the system was conceived. Washington, D.C. will also get the system by the end of the year, and then it will be rolled out to the rest of the country.
The way the system will work is that text messages will be sent to targeted cellphones either by GPS location or via specific cellphone towers. The text alerts will have priority over all other traffic - avoiding congestion that can delay other text messages - and pop up on the cellphone screen with a distinct tone and a vibration.
In addition to the president, other national, local, and state government officials could use PLAN if there are imminent threats of danger. Amber Alerts for abducted children would also be sent. It is anticipated cellphone users may be able to opt out of some messages, like the Amber Alerts, but no one could opt out of hearing from the president.
Cellphone providers have been working with the government to put the system in place in cellphones. Some already have the necessary chips installed and soon all will have them. Older phones without the chips wouldn't work with the system.
Think of how useful this system would have been when tornadoes were recently tearing through many states - or if another terror attack were to occur, although no one wants that to happen. The ability to send very localized alerts is particularly useful and most people have their cellphones with them much of the time.
Obviously, some people are going to see this a more intrusive than the current alert system. They also may have concerns that their privacy will be violated, although FEMA officials said the government would not get location information or other data from people's cellphones.
Still, given the suspicion these days about “big government” it seems inevitable that some will see a conspiracy in the PLAN system.
Personally, I am hesitant about the Amber Alert part of the equation since often these are not truly stranger abductions. Often these involve false alarms or custody disputes between family members. I would want the ability to opt out of those.
But if the other alerts are truly going to be limited to potentially life-threatening or dangerous situations - like natural disasters or security emergencies - I am OK with that.
And, hey, it might be kind of neat to get a text message from the president.
Terry Ross is director of the Yuma Sun's News and Information Center. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone him at 539-6870.