Homeland Security Committee Considers Turning Nation’s Cellphones into Walkie-Talkies During Emergencies

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In the event of a disaster, how does the government communicate with a population of cord cutters when cellphone towers are down?

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, statements made by Apple’s Bud Tribble were incorrectly attributed to Defense Department Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen. The plan to use cellphones in a national emergency was a suggestion made to the Pentagon, not a plan the department is currently undertaking.

Let's say it's 2016 and the government has a message to get out to the public -- ISIS is believed to be waging an attack on cellphone towers in the United States. How can the feds communicate that to a population of cord cutters when the towers are down?

That hypothetical scenario is one of the problems the government and telecommunications providers are grappling with, as they strategize how to maintain the integrity of emergency communications in an increasingly wireless world.

There are some solutions being floated around the Defense Department by the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, a panel that compiles recommendations on critical national security and emergency preparedness issues.  

"We need to think about in the digital environment how do we recreate the old national emergency broadcast and ask could we use cellphones, for example, differently?" Defense Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen said at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

That smartphone may not be as inert as most would expect when towers go kaput. 

"At the base level, electronics that people have in their pockets are radio transceivers and they can not only talk to cell towers, they can talk to each other," Bud Tribble, Apple vice president of software technology, told Halvorsen.

“Should we mesh these together" if towers are unavailable “to propagate a broadcast signal to replace the old civil defense broadcast?" Tribble posited, referring to a Cold War-era arrangement for discreetly repeating messages from one radio station to another across the country.  

"It would be unimaginable 50 years ago to talk about a situation where every citizen has a UHF transceiver in their pocket, but that's what we have today and we should think out of the box in how to leverage that in emergency situations," he said.

The advisory council has long warned the government about the difficulty of pushing out Wi-Fi and broadband communications to the masses during disasters.

"A router placed at the edge of the network to connect various types of residential, cellular, satellite or enterprise clients to the core network may experience congestion at peak traffic times or during network events," panel members wrote in a 2008 report on National Security and Emergency Preparedness Internet Protocol-Based Traffic. 

A federal government colleague of Halvorsen's from the Department of Homeland Security pointed out one hiccup with harnessing the distributed-cellular power of crowds to get out a message. 

"In a world where everybody can broadcast, the ability to spoof, or fake, a government broadcast is obviously increased," said Andy Ozment, assistant secretary of the DHS Office of Cybersecurity and Communications.

Whereas now, “the likelihood that somebody will fake a government broadcast that overrides all the TV channels in the nation is relatively low; the likelihood that somebody will fake a government broadcast that appears on one stream of some commercial service is not as low at all," Ozment cautioned. 

There have, in fact, been instances of hackers interrupting regular programming to issue false warnings.

In 2013, a Montana TV station broadcast was disrupted by news of a zombie apocalypse, The Associated Press reported at the time. Unauthorized users broke into the Emergency Alert System of KRTV and its CW channel. According to the New York Daily News, a computerized voice advised: the "bodies of the dead are rising from their graves. Follow the messages on screen that will be updated as information becomes available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous."

The government should make it harder for pranksters or terrorists to log into emergency communications systems, Tribble acknowledged. 

"You don't want some teenager thinking -- 'Oh, this is Super Twitter,’” he said. “It comes down to who has the keys that authorize such a transmission so that kind of design has to be thought about up front to make sure that this is a secure mechanism. "

(Image via solarseven/ Shutterstock.com)