Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Correlated Distraction

It is 11:44AM Pacific and I'm driving, making a left on to Central Expressway in Mountain View, CA and trying to avoid another vehicle whose driver isn't paying attention when an ear-splitting siren goes off in my car. After a moment of panic I see "Connected" on the infotainment system display. Its the emergency alert system. When it is finally safe to stop and check, I see this message:
Emergency Alert: Dust Storm Warning in this area until 12:00PM MST. Avoid travel. Check local media - NWS.
WTF? Where to even begin with this stupidity? Well, here goes:
  • "this area" - what area? In the Bay Area we have earthquakes, wildfires, flash floods, but we don't yet have dust storms. Why does the idiot who composed the message think they know where everyone who will read it is?
  • Its 11:44AM Pacific, or 18:44UTC. That's 12:44PM Mountain. Except we're both on daylight savings time. So did the message mean 12:00PM MDT, in which case the message was already 44 minutes too late? Or did the message mean 12:00MST, or 19:00UTC, in which case it had 16 minutes to run? Why send a warning 44 minutes late or use the wrong time zone?
  • A dust storm can be dangerous, so giving people 16 minutes (but not -44 minutes) warning could save some lives. Equally, distracting everyone in "this area" who is driving, operating machinery, performing surgery, etc. could cost some lives. Did anyone balance the upsides and downsides of issuing this warning, even assuming it only reached people in "this area"?
  • I've written before about the importance and difficulty of modelling correlated failures. Now that essentially every driver is carrying (but hopefully not talking on) a cellphone, the emergency alert system is a way to cause correlated distraction of every driver across the entire nation. Correlated distraction caused by rubbernecking at accidents is a well-known cause of additional accidents. But at least that is localized in space. Who thought that building a system to cause correlated distraction of every driver in the nation was a good idea?
  • Who has authority to trigger the distraction? Who did trigger the distraction? Can we get that person fired?
  • This is actually the third time the siren has gone off while I'm driving. The previous two were Amber alerts. Don't get me wrong. I think getting drivers to look out for cars that have abducted children is a good idea, and I'm glad to see the overhead signs on freeways used for that purpose. But it isn't a good enough idea to justify the ear-splitting siren and consequent distraction. So I had already followed instructions to disable Amber alerts. I've now also disabled Emergency alerts.
So, once again, because no-one thought What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, a potentially useful system has crashed and burned.


Dragan Espenschied said...

I think the way how the alert is displayed in the vehicle (or on other devices) plays a larger role than the dispatch of the alert itself. If it was a bit of text on the dash board, akin to the signal that reminds drivers of low fuel, I guess it wouldn't be as dangerous.

You might however enjoy an idea that circulated in 2012 about transmitting terror warnings broadcasted from a NATO satellite via the smoke detectors installed in every home! You can't make this up! https://bks-portal.rlp.de/sites/default/files/og-group/7824/36/dokumente/BBK_I3-MoWaS-PK_Handout_Text.pdf (German PDF)

David. said...

I see I omitted some important details. The dust storm warning was distributed by the system that is now called Wireless Emergency Alerts to my iPhone. The iPhone was connected to my car via Bluetooth, so the ear-splitting siren interrupted the car radio. The "user interface" is implemented by the phone, not the car. It is designed to distract attention from whatever the user is doing.

Everyone with a smartphone in "this area" who hadn't explicitly disabled emergency warnings (as I now have) would have received it and the siren. The reason the driver wasn't paying attention was probably the siren going off in his car.

David. said...

The FCC has voted to "improve" the nation's correlated distraction system! We are to get longer messages, and eventually links. More text mor distracted drivers to read, and even click on!

David. said...

Peter Moskowitz points out that Our Cell Phone Alerts Will Be Hacked, and the improved system offers the bad guys even more potential exploits.

David. said...

The Wireless Emergency Alert system failed in the Wine Country fires.