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US government mandates special "emergency alerts" chip in all cell phones by 2012

27th May 2011, 12:04 PM |#1  
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Yet another Big Brother measure destined to shove presidential messages to every cell phone user, eat battery juice, and add to the phone's cost:


A new national alert system is set to begin in New York City that will alert the public to emergencies via cell phones. [...] starting next year, all cell phones will be required to have the chip that receives alerts [...] The Droid X already has the chip. The system will use GPS technology to send geographically-targeted alerts: information about public safety threats, Amber Alerts for missing children, and presidential messages. Users can't opt out of the presidential messages. [The alerts] eventually might include audio and video content.

Below is a summary I cobbled together from the scarce information provided by the FCC here and here, and from press coverage.

The service is called "Personal Localized Alerting Network" or "PLAN" (technically called the "Commercial Mobile Alert System") and is scheduled to be available in New York by the end of 2011 and throughout the United States by April 2012, as a consequence of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act passed by Congress in 2006, which allocated $106 million to fund the program[1].

All new phones will be required to have the special chip, and according to AT&T spokesman Robert Quinn, some iPhones and Android phones already have it. It is confirmed that the Droid X (released in June 2010) does support PLAN and has a special "Emergency Alerts" app. Although this means the chip has been out there for at least one year, there is no precise list of which phones have the chips.

Carriers that will participate ahead of schedule are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. The alerts will be text-like messages of 90 characters or less, and they'll be geographically targeted using GPS technology (does this mean that the chip will send your location continuously?). Alerts will be accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration (helpful to people with hearing or vision disabilities). The PLAN alert will appear as a pop-up text, different from regular text messages. PC World reported that the alerts "eventually might include audio and video content".

Alerts will be pushed via wireless carrier cell towers, but are designed to not suffer from the congestion that can affect regular SMS text messages.

The CMAS Third Report and Order mentions that cost recovery is left as a decision for carriers: they may choose to absorb the costs themselves, or pass them on to customers.

Phones that already have the PLAN technology

* Motorola Droid X (sources)
* Sanyo Innuendo (source: Sprint spokesperson Crystal Davis, 571-288-6806, via Business Wire)
* Sanyo Vera (source: as above)
* Sprint "plans to launch more PLAN-capable mobile devices later this year, and include PLAN technology in all new Sprint phones by the end of 2011." (source: as above)

Has anyone heard of this? It's been 3 weeks since the news was out and I haven't seen any followup in the media. The technical information is also extremely scarce. A few questions can be raised.

Concerns with the PLAN chip

UPDATE: see a comment from reddit, which addresses most of these issues.

1. Why is there so little precise technical information on a measure that will affect every single phone manufactured since 2012?

2. The cited reason for having an extra chip embedded in each cell phone is that the current SMS infrastructure can get congested in times of emergency. However, PLAN still uses wireless carrier cell towers to push messages (as opposed to a different frequency, like the ones used for radio clock synchronization or GPS). The GSM standard already supports Cell Broadcast (CB) messaging. This FCC paper from 2007 states that "Cell broadcast is already resident in most network infrastructure and in most phones, so there is no need to build any towers, lay any cable, write any software, or replace terminals". What is the exact justification of the extra chip? If the existence of the chip is a misunderstanding of the media, then why don't existing phones work with the system already? Why do we need new phones that are "PLAN-capable"?

3. Why limit the system to 90 characters of text, instead of relying on the existing multimedia message infrastructure, which can be used to send, for example, such critical information as a photo of an evacuation map? Also, the system is not backward compatible with the over 300 million mobile phones already in place in the United States, while using SMS is (more on these issues). It will take a few years (5?) for all phones to support PLAN. How many lives will be lost in the meantime? SMS is available now. Also, old people, the ones most likely to be affected by certain kinds of emergencies, tend to use very simple phones and to be very late adopters of new technology. Their phones do support SMS though.

4. Does the technology use GPS, as BBC mentions? The battery drain and surveillance implications are major.

5. Users can't opt out of “Presidential” messages. What safeguards are in place that would prevent an oppressive government from abusing this technology?

6. The design of the system is not available. How can the users know that it won't be abused? The chip could be programmed to snap a picture from the phone's camera, or to covertly record audio, upon receiving a certain signal. Remote activation of a phone's microphone has already been done by the FBI using the so-called roving bug.

7. What is to prevent the government-required software from receiving a certain signal or message which would disable the cell phone or its Internet access (useful in times of civil unrest, as has been seen in the Arab Spring revolts)?

8. Will rooting phones or custom ROMs become illegal, especially if one modifies the function of how the PLAN network interacts with the smartphone?

Sources and media coverage

The only first-hand press coverage I've seen dates from May 10-11, and there's been nothing since.

* National Emergency Alert System Set To Launch In NYC, with audio from the announcement. 800+ users comments, mostly against the idea. "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."
* Engadget - text of the press release. "Participating carriers are including PLAN chips in their new phones, and many recently purchased phones already have the chip and only will require a software upgrade."
* Wired: Bloomberg, FEMA, FCC Detail NYC Emergency Notification System: "The assembled wireless-company executives, including AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, pledged their support for the system and said new devices will be equipped with a PLAN chip. [...] a list of compatible phones would be posted soon on the FCC’s website [...] Officials didn’t go into detail about the technical specifications of the new network."
* PC World: FCC Calls for Mobile Alert System (2008): "The alerts initially would be text only, though with vibration and audio signals for people with disabilities. They eventually might include audio and video content." (confirmed at FCC's site)
* MacDailyNews: U.S. gov’t mandates special chip in all cellphones; users can’t opt out of presidential messages: "It will use GPS technology and will send some of the alerts based on the location of the phone user."
* Daily Mail UK: Don't write off a text message from the president as a prank: It's an emergency and he might just save your life...: "A special chip is required to allow the phone to receive the messages"
* NY Times: Emergency Alert System Expected for Cellphones: "special chip [...] is currently included in some higher-end smartphones like the latest iPhones"
* USA Today: Cellphones get emergency alerts: "Some current cellphones, including some iPhones and some Android phones, already have the circuitry required to receive PLAN alerts. The iPhones that have the capacity to get alerts, says AT&T's Robert Quinn, will require software modifications. New AT&T phones due out in October will be PLAN-ready."
* NY Post: "Officials said at least three models already have the chip: the Droid X, the iPhone 4 and the Innuendo." The emergency alert feature and app (which can't be uninstalled) are confirmed on the Droid X. Note that the Droid X was released in July 2010.
* BBC: Mobile phone emergency alert system to launch in US: "Mr Bloomberg unveiled the Personal Localized Alerting Network, or Plan, on Tuesday, explaining that the system will implemented through a special chip installed on new mobile phones. The system works through GPS technology and will send some of the alerts based on a user's location."
* AFP: US alert system targets mobile phones: "The alerts will be text-like messages of 90 characters or less."
* Associated Press: Cellphone alert system announced in NYC: "A special chip is required to allow the phone to receive the messages. Some smartphones already have the chip, and software updates will be available when the network goes online later this year."
* FEMA page - no technical details, and nothing beyond what the press said
* slashdot and reddit


CMAS/PLAN specs I dug up. They seem to indicate that Cell Broadcasts will be used, but all specs are paywalled from $125 and up.
Last edited by dandv; 17th June 2011 at 01:03 AM. Reason: Added reply from redditor
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27th May 2011, 02:24 PM |#2  
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Hadn't heard about this at all. I'm not for it, I don't see why I can't just opt-in to a service like this, no special chip required at all. When I was in college, after the VA Tech shootings the University started a service to alert everybody in case of an emergency. Hell, my job has an automated system that tells us when there's an unexpected closing. But apparently the government needs a chip for that purpose. Absurd.
27th May 2011, 04:05 PM |#3  
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How much you wanna bet there's going to be a lot more in that chip than just something allowing you to receive warning messages.

How about full on tracking and voice recording?
Patriot Act.
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27th May 2011, 04:29 PM |#4  
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Call me naive, but I'm not as paranoid about this. Sure, the gubmint does all sorts of monitoring they shouldn't, but going so far as to install a special chip in every cell phone in the country? They can't hide that. It's out in the open, to be dissected and shown to the world for what it is. I can't imagine they'd do something so brash. They'd never live it down.
27th May 2011, 09:20 PM |#5  
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Originally Posted by I Am Marino

How much you wanna bet there's going to be a lot more in that chip than just something allowing you to receive warning messages.

How about full on tracking and voice recording?
Patriot Act.

I seen sum videos on yutube dat most new cellphones r bein tapped to hear your voice conversations bcuz of terorist acts
27th May 2011, 10:47 PM |#6  
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I see the Tin-Foil hat brigade have come out in force..

How is this not a good thing?

The Police cannot be everywhere at once, but the public is! If a child goes missing and a member of the public sees them, how is that not WIN for the child?

28th May 2011, 02:56 AM |#7  
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If you haven't done something wrong, then you don't have to worry..

But wait, that's not the discussion is it? It's healthy to be a little bit skeptic, but paranoid? Not so much.
28th May 2011, 03:13 AM |#8  
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Lightbulb The "nothing to hide" argument again
Originally Posted by BazookaAce

If you haven't done something wrong, then you don't have to worry..

This is the common "nothing to hide" argument. It suffers from four problems:

* aggregation: if you bought a book on cancer, that won't raise any flags, but if you bought a wig as well, that suggests you're undergoing chemotherapy, something you might not want to be known

* exclusion - people are most of the time unaware of what information is being kept or tracked about them. When they accidentally find out to what extent they are being monitored, the reaction is one of shock.

* guilt by associaton - since you have no idea how your information is used and aggregated, what if some of the purchases you make or places you visit happen to match a pattern observed in actions of government enemies (not terrorists, but "hostile or critical journalists, campaigning lobbyists, businessmen who are likely to sponsor rival parties, people who oppose the party leader's favourite idea of the year")? Once you get on a watch list, even due to an error, it's extremely hard to get out of it. Read Hasan Elahi's story of how he was inadvertently detained by FBI agents in 2002, and since then, he publishes everything he does online, so that he can be monitored properly ("The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong. You can monitor yourself much more accurately").

* distortion - if you buy books on cellphone hacking, the government might think you want to thwart surveillance or avoid a roving wiretap; while you might simply be doing security research or writing a novel

More at .
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28th May 2011, 03:51 AM |#9  
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Why can't they just send a text message out to everyone like they do in a lot of universities? Sounds like a waste of money.
28th May 2011, 08:44 AM |#10  
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Send text messages instead
Originally Posted by panchopunk

Why can't they just send a text message out to everyone like they do in a lot of universities? Sounds like a waste of money.

Exactly. We have all the infrastructure we need for text message; they are fast, cheap, and don't require forcing manufacturers to add yet another chip into the phone.
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