False missile alert in Hawaii prompts federal inquiry

A screen capture from a Twitter account shows a missile warning for Hawaii on Saturday. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it was opening a "full investigation into what happened".
A screen capture from a Twitter account shows a missile warning for Hawaii on Saturday. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it was opening a "full investigation into what happened". PHOTO: REUTERS

Worker pushed the wrong button during shift change at emergency command post

WASHINGTON • A false alert sent to cellphones across Hawaii warning of an incoming ballistic missile is calling attention to an emergency notification system that government officials at all levels say needs major improvements.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it was opening a 'full investigation into what happened' when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent the errant alert on Saturday as a result of what Governor David Y. Ige said was human error: a worker who "pushed the wrong button" during a shift change at the state’s emergency command post.

Senator Brian Schatz praised FCC chairman Ajit Pai for moving swiftly to address the mistake, which plunged Hawaii into panic and confusion for some 38 minutes until officials issued a message cancelling the initial alert.

"This system failed miserably and we need to start over," Mr Schatz said in a message on Twitter.

Ms Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, also expressed concern about the system’s failure. "Emergency alerts are meant to keep us and our families safe, not to create false panic," she wrote on Twitter. "We must investigate and we must do better."

The episode in Hawaii appeared to be the Wireless Emergency Alerts system’s most serious misfire since it became operational in 2012 to modernise a decades-old approach of using television and radio to notify the public about impending weather, safety and other hazards.

Federal officials said then that the near ubiquity of mobile phones made them the most effective means for warning of hurricanes, terrorist threats and missing persons. Emergency alerts are still broadcast via TV, radio and air siren, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

Arriving with distinct ringtones and vibrations, the wireless alerts resemble text messages when they pop up on cellphone screens, but they rely on different technology.

All wireless carriers participate in the system, and Hawaii’s emergency agency is among hundreds of federal, state, local, tribal and territorial authorities with the power to use it, according to Fema. More than 30,000 alerts have been sent since the system’s introduction, according to the FCC.

 
 

The alerts are free; consumers can use their phone settings to opt out of getting all but those sent by the President. The system has come under growing scrutiny in recent months, with public safety officials complaining that it requires upgrades on several fronts.

Critics say alerts are often sent too widely, sowing fear among people unlikely to be affected by the threat in question. There have also been calls for the alerts to be sent in languages other than English.

The FCC has approved some changes, but they will not take effect until next year.

Last week, Mr Pai announced a proposal to update the alert system to improve its location-targeting ability. The inability to target more precisely the areas facing potential threats has deterred some public safety officials from issuing alerts.

Dr Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, said he immediately suspected that the alert was false because it involved such a significant national security threat that was directed solely at Hawaii.

If there had been a missile fired towards the United States, military and intelligence officials would have first notified the President, who would have then decided whether to issue a national emergency alert, he said.

Dr Blair added that the episode exposed a potential flaw in the system that has significant implications.

"This," he said, "is a system that is hackable and prone to human and technical error."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'False missile alert in Hawaii prompts federal inquiry'. Print Edition | Subscribe