You’ll Really Want An “Undo” Button When You Accidentally Send A Ballistic Missile Warning

Hawaiians started their weekend with quite a fright, waking up Saturday morning to a ballistic missile alert that turned out to be a false alarm. In between the public anger, profuse apologies from officials, and geopolitical commentary, it might be hard to find some information for the more technical-minded. For this audience, The Atlantic has compiled a brief history of infrastructure behind emergency alerts.

As a system intended to announce life-critical information when seconds count, all information on the system is prepared ahead of time for immediate delivery. As a large hodgepodge linking together multiple government IT systems, there’s no surprise it is unwieldy to use. These two aspects collided Saturday morning: there was no prepared “Sorry, false alarm” retraction message so one had to be built from scratch using specialized equipment, uploaded across systems, and broadcast 38 minutes after the initial false alarm. In the context of government bureaucracy, that was really fast and must have required hacking through red tape behind the scenes.

However, a single person’s mistake causing such chaos and requiring that much time to correct is unacceptable. This episode has already prompted a lot of questions whose answers will hopefully improve the alert system for everyone’s benefit. At the very least, a retraction is now part of the list of prepared messages. But we’ve also attracted attention of malicious hackers to this system with obvious problems in design, in implementation, and also has access to emergency broadcast channels. The system needs to be fixed before any more chaotic false alarms – either accidental or malicious – erode its credibility.

We’ve covered both the cold-war era CONELRAD and the more recent Emergency Broadcast System. We’ve also seen Dallas’ tornado siren warning system hacked. They weren’t the first, they won’t be the last.

(Image: Test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM via US Air Force.)

Radio Apocalypse: The Emergency Broadcast System

Some sounds are capable of evoking instant terror. It might be the shriek of a mountain lion, or a sudden clap of thunder. Whatever your trigger sound, it instantly stimulates something deep in the lizard brain that says: get ready, danger is at hand.

For my part, you can’t get much scarier than the instantly recognizable two-tone alert signal (audio link warning) from the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). For anyone who grew up watching TV in the 60s and 70s in the US, it was something you heard on at least a weekly basis, with that awful tone followed by a grave announcement that “the broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities, have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency.” It was a constant reminder that white-hot death could rain from the sky at any moment, and the idea that the last thing you may ever hear was that tone was sickening.

While I no longer have a five-year-old’s response to that sound, it’s still a powerful reminder of a scary time. And the fact that it’s still in use today, at least partially, seems like a good reason to look at the EBS in a little more depth, and find out the story behind the soundtrack of the end of the world.

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