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Opt out of FEMA presidential alerts? You can’t, and here’s why that’s legal

Opt out of FEMA presidential alerts? You can’t, and here’s why that’s legal
[Photo: Shealah Craighead/The White House/Flickr]

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been telling us for a while now that it plans to conduct a national test of the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), specifically the “Presidential Alerts” that are part of the established WEA system.

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Despite the fact that we’ve been warned multiple times about the test, many cell-phone users will likely be startled today at 2:18 p.m. ET when the testing begins, as millions of cell phones will receive a text message with an ominous header reading “Presidential Alert.” According to FEMA, the body of the text will let people know that it’s only a test and no action is needed.

Unlike President Donald Trump’s tweets, there is no way to opt out of presidential alerts, as they’re part of an emergency system meant to warn Americans about national emergencies. That means if your wireless service is provided by one of the more than 100 carriers that participate in the WEA system—and most cell phones are WEA enabled—you just have to sit back and let it be.

So is this legal? In a word, yes. The WEA system was established a decade ago and became operational in 2012. It includes the following types of alerts:

  • Extreme weather, and other threatening emergencies in your area
  • Amber alerts
  • Presidential Alerts during a national emergency

You can opt out of the weather alerts or the Amber Alerts by going into your phone’s settings (I did this a few years ago when one woke me up in the middle of the night), but the Presidential Alerts are mandatory. Think of them as the DEFCON 1 of phone alerts. They’re meant for only the most dire of emergencies, and were passed into law along with the 2006 WARN act.

Still, today marks the first nationwide test of the Presidential Alerts, and not everyone thinks it’s the best use of government resources—especially when you consider that our current president seems to have no trouble getting messages out on his own.

But how you feel about national alerts may have a lot to do with how you feel about whoever happens to occupy the White House. Back in 2013, a number of far-right bloggers, including Alex Jones, were up in arms over reports that then President Barack Obama was “loading iPhones with emergency alerts” that you couldn’t opt out of. It took a segment by MSNBC to remind them that the WARN act was passed during the Bush era.

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