If you live in the United States and have a mobile device, dollars to donuts you got a special alert this afternoon. (0ct 3rd)

What It Was

“THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” Have you ever been watching TV in the middle of the day and the show you’re watching cuts out and you hear a piercing alarm sound, followed by the message “This is a test of the national broadcast system”? Well, this is that for the new millennium. In the event of some kind of national calamity, the federal government wants to have a way to get out a blanket message to as many people as possible. At one point, that meant special messages through the radio. When the TV came along, it became the new preferred method (though alerts will still go over the radio). Now FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has upgraded the system to get the message out to mobile networks. The message you received was a test of this new system. In a lot of ways, this was overdue. At this point, pretty much everyone has a mobile device of some sort. If your goal is to reach as many people as possible, this is the way to do it, and it has been for the better part of the decade. The government can be slow unless you owe them money.

What It Wasn’t

Prior to the alert, many news organizations framed the new system as a way for the president to send a text message to every phone or tablet in America. You can’t opt out of this system. If your phone is on, you get the message. The implication being that the president can use this system to spread messages for his own personal or political agenda. That’s not what this is. There are various rules, guidelines, and protections in place to prevent this system from being abused in such a manner.

What It Could Be

The fear of overreach comes from the fact that this message is framed as a Presidential Alert. Moreover, these messages that are meant to be sent in case of emergency are at the discretion of the president. People fear that for a president who isn’t exactly known for respecting rules, guidelines, and protections, the possibility of abuse is a very real one. The powers of the president are vast. In fact, the country is discovering first hand that the office is even more powerful than they had come to believe. Traditionally, that power had been tempered by tradition and the concept of separation of powers. With both of those seemingly fading from the equation, many are in a heightened state of worry over government overreach; perhaps justifiably so, perhaps not.

What to Take from All of This

Is it a good thing? Objectively, yes. If used the way it is intended, a system like this will almost certainly save lives. The fact that it is being framed as a message from the president, while technically true, is a mischaracterization. It has his rubber stamp on it more than it is any kind of personal message. So long as that remains the case, hopefully, there will never be a need to use this system. However, as the last two or so years have shown us; anything can happen.