Pentagon Considers Turning Cell Phones Into Walkie-Talkies During Emergencies

The government is strategizing how to maintain the integrity of emergency communications in an increasingly wireless world.

A Pentagon sign is seen during a press briefing at the Pentagon Briefing Room August 29, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
Add to Briefcase
Aliya Sternstein, NextGov
May 8, 2015, 6:03 a.m.

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 cell-phone 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 floating around in the Defense Department. 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,” Defense Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen said Wednesday.

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

Halvorsen was bouncing ideas off members of the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, a panel that compiles recommendations on critical national security and emergency preparedness issues.

“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,” Halvorson 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, “National Security and Emergency Preparedness Internet Protocol-Based Traffic.”

A federal government colleague of Halvorsen’s from the Homeland Security Department 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, Halvorsen 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?”

What We're Following See More »
SAYS HIS DEATH STEMMED FROM A FISTFIGHT
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Source:
ROGER STONE IN THE CROSSHAIRS?
Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Source:
PROBING COLLUSION AND OBSTRUCTION
Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

Source:
PASSED ON SO-CALLED "SAR" REPORTS
FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
1 days ago
THE DETAILS
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
Source:
FIRST CHARGE FOR MIDTERMS
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login