You Can’t Tell the President to Buzz Off

Richard Nixon’s imperial fantasy came true on Wednesday. According to author Jerry Mander, Nixon asked his staff in the 1960s if the government could require television manufacturers to install a switch to enable the president to turn them on automatically in the case of a national emergency. His staff either dismissed the idea or ignored it as unserious. One person should not be given that much power in America.

That was then. On Wednesday afternoon beginning at 2:28, every American with a major carrier cell phone received a Presidential Alert. It was a more direct intrusion than even Nixon fantasized about. If your cell phone was turned on, you probably received the alert.

It arrived with the header Presidential Alert: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” Authorities simultaneously tested the nation’s venerable emergency broadcast alert system, which operates through radio and TV stations. (More about that in a moment.)

Presidential Alerts on your cell phone cannot be turned off. You cannot opt out. Anytime you want to be connected to family or friends, you are also giving that access to the White House. Stop what you’re doing — your president is calling.

President George W. Bush authorized the alerts in 2006. Congress mandated that the system be tested every three years, but no test alerts were ever sent. President Obama apparently agreed with Nixon’s staff that presidential power should not extend to every American’s pocket.

The president’s authority is only to be used in the case of a national emergency, but “national emergency” has been defined downward recently. President Trump couldn’t have renegotiated NAFTA without first claiming that Canada posed a threat to national security. If there were mounties amassing at our border, I missed it.

These cell phone alerts follow a governmental trend, except for two glaring differences.

The National Weather Service sends localized alerts when a severe weather system could endanger the lives of the unprepared. Severe thunderstorms, flooding, hurricanes and tsunamis may warrant such alerts. In a way, this is nothing new. We had tornado sirens in the Midwest to warn people to seek shelter. Those sirens offered no opt-out options.

More recently, law enforcement officials have gained the ability to broadcast Amber Alerts, when a child has been abducted and time is of the essence. Most of us are willing to be interrupted if there’s imminent danger nearby. Hawaii recently made headlines when an emergency alert was accidentally sent to residents that an incoming missile had been detected.

These examples are all localized to a target area, using the GPS function in the phone. They are also being sent by agencies that have safeguards built into the protocol for implementation. (Those protocols failed in Hawaii, but we can presume the person who accidentally hit the switch was disciplined.)

The Presidential Alert system may also have guardrails to keep the president from drunk dialing all U.S. citizens, but raise your hand if you believe those protections will prevent a president from using this — or any other — power inappropriately.

No other alert system currently in place hasn’t been localized. The idea of the president simultaneously speaking to virtually everyone in the nation is creepy, but localized messages could be even worse. If that is technically possible, we could be receiving a reminder to vote on Election Day, but only in states where the White House’s preferred political party might benefit.

Presidential Alerts suddenly make the President’s Twitter feed seem quaint.

America has endured for almost a quarter of a millennium because its systems shrewdly distributed power. Washington’s power tree is divided into three branches. States are explicitly given all powers not reserved for the central government. Individual liberties are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

That was then. California and 20 other states, including Oregon, believe its citizens are best served by an Internet that does not favor anyone over anyone else. When California reinstated what had been national net neutrality rules inside its own borders, the federal government immediately sued, alleging that the FCC “has the exclusive power to regulate” the Internet.

Taken together, the federal government is asserting its right to access and control every electronic means we have of sharing information with one another. That should send a chill up your spine, before it sends a buzz to your pocket.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.