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Does the Presidential Alert Give the Government Control Over Your Phone?

by Ally Hall

On Oct. 3 at exactly 2:18 p.m., many smartphone users received a text with the following message:

Presidential Alert

THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted their first Presidential Alert test of the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. The WEA system is used to alert the public of missing children, bad weather, and other vital information. The difference between normal WEA alerts and the Presidential Alert is that WEA-compatible smartphone users cannot opt out of receiving the message.

This has rubbed some Americans the wrong way.

A lawsuit has been filed against President Trump and William Long, FEMA administrator, for the infringement of the First and Fourth Amendment rights. It proposes that American citizens should not be forced to receive the text message, inadvertently becoming a “government loudspeaker” that violates their right to privacy.

“The Presidential Alert system…which cannot be opted out of, violates [the First and Fourth Amendment] rights because it is tantamount to hijacking private property,” states the official case document.

Besides the claim of rights infringement, some Americans worry that the government may be able to track and collect information about smartphone users through a chip implanted in their private devices.

John McAfee, founder of the McAfee Antivirus software company, expressed concern about the government’s control over cell phones in issuing the Presidential Alert.

“The Presidential alerts are capable of accessing the E911 chip in your phones—giving them full access to your location, microphone, camera and every function of your phone,” claimed the antivirus pioneer in a statement on Twitter.

McAfee might not have as much credibility his tech-oriented title insinuates, what with the controversial history surrounding him. He’s infamous for his alleged role in the murder of his neighbor and subsequently fleeing the United States to Belize, releasing information to Wired magazine about the situation. Further digging into McAfee’s claim turns up inconclusive evidence.

Ted Rappaport, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the director of New York University’s Wireless Research Center, claims that “there is no such thing as an E911 chip in a cell phone.” However, McAfee may be referring to the GPS receiver in phones used to find the location of users. The “E911” name comes from the E911 rules which calls for wireless carriers to provide the latitude and longitude of 9-1-1 callers.

According to FEMA, the Wireless Emergency Alert System does not use E911 functions or hardware. This means that the Presidential Alert is not in any way exploiting personal

information as McAfee claims. The nation-wide message is received passively, that is, cell towers do not obtain any information from receiving devices.

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