Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a new scheme, called PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network) for alerting the populace to emergencies through cell phone messages. New phone will include programming to receive the messages, which will be broadcast from cell phone towers in the affected area.
Some have suggested that this is yet another way for the government to monitor one’s activities. From the information in hand, it doesn’t look like that. When you carry a cell phone and keep it turned on, the phone company knows where you are: it’s how you can receive calls. From the information in hand, PLAN actually seems a step backward: the messages are addressed through cell phone towers, to whatever phones have the programming to receive the messages. The receivers of the message are not localized, or even identified, by the transmission of a PLAN message.
Are we now so distrustful of the government that what is actually a public safety enhancement is viewed as a form of mind control? Perhaps, but:
- The description of PLAN indicates that the system will provide ‘text-like messages.’ Well, is it a text message, or isn’t it? Perhaps one could forward a brief audio message through PLAN, but the description is unclear. I’m OK with a textual message, but having my phone interrupt me in the middle of a call is not so good.
- The description notes that there are three kinds of message that will be forwarded through PLAN: Amber Alerts (for child kidnapping), alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life (tornado warnings?), and Presidential messages. A service provider may enable users to block the first two kinds of messages, but not Presidential alerts:
- I’ve never liked the concept of the Amber Alert. It reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, when the police enlist the help of the neighborhood to catch the fleeing Montag: OK, everyone drop what you’re doing and look out your front door… now! It’s true that child kidnapping is very rare, and Amber Alerts are actually infrequent. But we’ve created an infrastructure that could readily be abused at the whim of our leadership. So I’ll shut them off… for now, anyway.
- I have to wonder what the President would tell the nation through an emergency text message. Perhaps they’ll send out one every Fourth of July at noon, as a test. But in an actual emergency, what would he tell us? “Put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye”?
So no, I’m not going to hang onto my old cell phone just to duck out of PLAN. Like anything else in our modern world, it can be used for good or for ill.