Tech’s Role in Early Warning Systems

on January 22, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

By now almost everyone is aware of the false incoming missile attack alert that was sent to people’s cell phones in Hawaii recently. The Filipino side of my family is in Hawaii, and I have worked with two of their governors and many of their business leaders on tech-related projects for 20 years. So the news of this “attack” was very personal for me.

The good news is that within 20 minutes, people were sent an update that the alarm was false and that they were safe. The bad news is that is scared people in ways that one who was not there and experienced this could hardly imagine. I know of one person who just sat in the tub and prayed. In many other cases, I am aware of people who called relatives in Hawaii and around the world to tearfully say goodbye. In my case, I began praying for the safety of my family, and all who were in the Hawaii Islands since the message that was sent suggested disaster was imminent.

We now know how this happened. A worker pushed the wrong button in part of a test and caused severe havoc among the people of Hawaii. The fact that there were no safeguards that allowed for a single button action that sent this alert is amazing.

At a minimum, there should have been a dual authentication process in place before that button could be pushed. And if the UI was designed properly it needed to be tied to an authentication process that included commands from the military and government bodies who are chartered with monitoring the threat of things like incoming missiles and any other type of alert that impact the people of these islands. This alert appears to have been tied to a system that was more like an Amber alert than one tied to government and military officials who actually would have a say in this type of matter

I know the current governor of Hawaii David Ige well since I worked with him on tech projects while he was a senator and again since he has become governor. I can see the pain and frustration on his face during the many press conferences he has held to discuss this problem and explain how the State will make sure this does not happen again. Governor Ige is an electrical engineer and understands technology well. I am certain had he known about the particulars around the UI of this warning system he would have had it changed well before this could have happened.

While the mistake was human error, it was preventable if the user interface of this system was designed with more safeguards and stronger IT oversight. This is as much a technology problem as it was one caused by human error. And Silicon Valley and the tech world need to think harder about how to help state and local governments deal with the magnitude of a serious attack if and should it ever happen.

The first thing tech needs to address and perhaps lay out is some guidelines around user Interface designs for disaster-related alerts. The fact that Hawaii did not have this place suggests that maybe a best practice in this area is not designed or at the very least, not well known.

The world has become a more dangerous place in the last year, and for the second time in my life, I have had to deal with the threat of a nuclear attack. I was in grade school during the Cold War, and we had to have nuclear bomb drills during our school year. In hindsight, these drills were absurd since all we did was hide under our desks when the siren went off. Also in those days, by the time a missile was headed for us, the technology was not there to even give us the type of alerts that would allow us time to get to a local bomb shelter fast enough if there even was one nearby.

Now, with just about everyone having a cell phone or having access to a radio and TV, any alert of something like an incoming missile could be sent in seconds. But an alert like this must only be sent if there was a real threat. The technology is there to make sure that is the only time it is used, but from what I have heard about a few other state systems for handling these alerts, they are not that far off from what Hawaii had in place. One unfortunate thing from this alert fiasco is that from now on the people in Hawaii will always question an alert like this and for some, it could become a “sky is falling” message.

The second thing tech could help with is preparing people for what to do should a nuclear attack take place. Surviving a direct hit is not possible but for many under threat and not in the direct line of the attack, moving to a basement, the center of the building or if one is available, a bomb shelter could save their lives in the short term. Of course, the impact of radiation could have long-term effects, but a preventative step like going underground I am told would be the best thing to do if a danger like this is immediate.

At the very least any state should have in place as part of their alert system clear instructions about what someone should do immediately if a missile or some bomb threat were to happen. And tech apps could be downloaded in advance with these types of instructions that give people clear things to do for their safety if an attack is imminent.

As I write about this topic I still have a hard time with the idea that we could be closer to a nuclear confrontation then we have been in decades. I sincerely hope that cooler heads prevail and we avoid any nuclear attack or war at all costs.

However, given the nuclear arsenal that exists in rogue states as well as many other nations who use it as a deterrent, the threat of nuclear war is always a possibility.

Given this current nuclear climate, the Federal Government, States and the world of Tech need to be more aligned when it comes to creating and implementing the types of alerts that could help people deal with and survive an attack of this nature. They need to work together to educate them on what to do should a warning be sent that is real and make sure people are prepared as much as possible should they ever face a real nuclear threat in their areas.