The same day that the collection of consumer location data was called into question by a Senate panel, FCC officials and executives from the nation’s top wireless carriers unveiled a new program that will enable federal agencies to alert citizens via text messages of impending dangers.
Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski, with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and executives from the nation’s top four carriers, on May 10 introduced PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network), a new location-aware plan to alert consumers via their mobile devices. The free service will send customers with enabled mobile devices geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting them to an imminent threat.
“PLAN ensures that emergency alerts will not get stalled by user congestion, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services,” the FCC said in a May 10 statement. “Authorized government officials can send messages, which participating wireless providers then push using their cell towers to enabled mobile devices in a targeted geographic area.”Bloomberg called it a “quantum leap forward in using technology to help keep people safe.”PLAN will send out three types of messages, of 90 characters of fewer: Alerts from the President; alerts involving an imminent threat to life; and AMBER Alerts (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) regarding a missing child.W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA (Federal Management Agency), said that the recent tornadoes in the Southeast emphasized the need to quickly convey life-saving information to the public.”This new technology could become a lifeline for millions of Americans and is another tool that will strengthen our nation’s resilience against all hazards,” Fugate said in the statement.While the FCC was announcing PLAN, in Washington, D.C., executives from Google and Apple were questioned by a Senate subcommittee regarding their practices of collecting and storing the location data of consumers with Apple iPhones running the latest operating system and many Android-running devices.In his written testimony, Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy, explained the growing importance that society today places on location-aware technology-from helping someone locate the nearest coffee shop to driving directions-which over the last few weeks has had something of a nefarious shadow cast over it. Davidson submitted:
“Existing emergency notifications like AMBER alerts can be improved using location data. In crisis situations, people are increasingly turning to the Internet on mobile or desktop devices to find information. Within a few hours of the Japan earthquake, for example, we saw a massive spike in search queries originating from Hawaii related to “tsunami.” We placed a location-based alert on the Google homepage for tsunami alerts in the Pacific and ran similar promotions across News, Maps, and other services. In cases like the Japanese tsunami or the recent tornadoes in the U.S., a targeted mobile alert from a provider like Google or from a public enhanced 911 service may help increase citizens’ chances of getting out of harm’s way.“
In 2006, Congress passed the WARN (Warning, Alert and Response Network) Act, requiring the carriers that chose to participate in PLAN to activate the technology by April 2012. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon will activate the service in New York two quarters ahead of schedule, said the FCC statement. By the end of 2011, 90 percent of New Yorkers with PLAN-capable mobile devices will be able to receive the alerts.”Given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square and other places popular with visitors and tourists,” Bloomberg said in the statement, “we’ll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area regardless of where they came from or bought their phone.”