Instant notification to millions has a downside

It’s been a rough start to 2018.

February’s stock market descent has been reminiscent of January’s temperature plunge, which left subtropical coastal North Carolina feeling more like North Dakota. And on top of that, Hawaii was attacked by nuclear missiles and the entire U.S. East Coast was hit by a tsunami. Whew!

OK, the last two events didn’t happen, but we are worried — and hope we are not alone — that millions of people were told that they were about to.

In Hawaii, the state emergency management employee — now “former employee” — who sent a false missile alert Jan. 13 said he’s devastated about causing a panic, but was “100 percent sure” the attack was real. Other workers, however, say they clearly heard the word “exercise” repeated several times. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency fired the employee.

More troubling, perhaps, is that the worker had a history of poor job performance, including mistaking previous drills for tsunami and fire warnings for the real thing. Colleagues said they were not comfortable working with him.

But it wasn’t just one bad pineapple. Investigators found that the agency had a “vague checklist for missile alerts, allowing workers to interpret the steps they should follow differently,” according to an Associated Press report. Also, managers didn’t require a second person to sign off on alerts, and there was no process to correct a false warning. (It took 38 minutes for a correction to be sent.)

On Tuesday, the weather-forecasting company AccuWeather sent a false tsunami alert to the mobile devices of perhaps millions of people on the East Coast. At 8:30 a.m., the National Weather Service’s tsunami center sent a planned test alert, which was clearly marked “test” in several places. Then, somehow, AccuWeather sent it as the real deal. The company blamed the NWS, claiming the alert was miscoded.

This is a scary — but perhaps needed — reminder of the consequences of being able to communicate at once with millions of people. We have no reason to believe the incidents were malevolent, but they sure got us thinking about the havoc that could be purposely unleashed.

It’s something government officials at all levels need to be talking about, as well as the thousands of businesses and other entities that wield this incredible power.

Be it false alerts, fake news or filched identities, the company that finally figures out the safety latch we need on the Pandora’s box of technology we keep opening will make a fortune.

Maybe it will even boost the markets.

Commentary from The Star-News of Wilmington and distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Commentary from The Star-News of Wilmington and distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.