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.

David. said...

The Wireless Emergency Alert system failed in the opposite way to the Wine Country fires this time:

"The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m., said: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

It took 38 minutes to reassure people that it was, in fact, a drill gone wrong.

I'm sure the North Koreans can arrange for an "Ooops, it is a drill" message less than 38 minutes after the time this message goes out for real. And, in any case, who in Hawaii is going to believe the next one?

This system is worse than useless, it is actively dangerous.

David. said...

"Hawaii’s false missile alert last weekend didn’t just cause widespread panic, it also triggered real damage, including a car accident and at least one heart attack." reports Carla Herreria at Huffington Post

David. said...

"Hawaiian Gov. David Ige (D) has made the embarrassing admission that his office did not immediately inform the public about the state’s missile alert false alarm partly because he had forgotten the password to his Twitter account." reports Josh Butler at HuffPost.

David. said...

As usual, Randall Munroe has an appropriate comment.

David. said...

"A vulnerability affecting emergency alert systems supplied by ATI Systems, one of the leading suppliers of warning sirens in the USA, could be exploited remotely via radio frequencies to activate all the sirens and trigger false alarms." reports Zeljka Zorz at HelpNet Security. Commands to the warning sirens are not encrypted.

David. said...

Its about 8:10am this morning and my wife and I are on our way to the trailhead for a hike. I'm driving, negotiating the 4-way stop at Page Mill and I-280, when an ear-splitting siren erupts in the car. I'm momentarily distracted, but fortunately there are no other cars around.

My wife grabs her iPhone, which is paired with the car's audio, but she's so paniced she loses the notification. I immediately work out that she hasn't disabled these alerts on her phone.

Then my phone goes off, not as loud because it isn't paired with the car. This is really weird, because I have Amber and Emergency alerts disabled! A minute or so later the ear-splitting siren returned, as my wife's iPhone went off for the second time!

When we get to the trailhead we check the notifications. There was only one on each phone. This whole drama was an Amber alert for a kid from Washington state abducted by a family member. Potentially a very serious situation. But this alert had been on the overhead signs on the freeway yesterday afternoon, at least 17 hours before our phones went off.


1) Why did I get the Amber alert when I have Amber alerts disabled?

2) Why did my wife's phone get two alerts for the same message?

3) Why did the authorities wait at least 17 hours before deciding to wake everyone up early on Sunday morning?

This system is so broken.

David. said...

Mark Frauenfelder's Parents sue Apple after Amber Alert "tore apart" son's eardrums is so right:

"According to a lawsuit filed against Apple, a 12-year-old boy in Texas suffered severe ear damage while he was wearing AirPods and watching Netflix when an Amber Alert siren went off.
The plaintiffs make a good case that Amber Alerts shouldn't start playing at an ear-blasting, nerve-jarring volume. Listeners should be given a chance to remove their earbuds before the volume reaches an ear-splitting level."