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Should Netflix and Hulu give you emergency alerts?

The federal emergency alert program was designed decades ago to interrupt your TV show or radio station and warn about impending danger — from severe weath...

Posted: Mar 11, 2019 7:52 AM

The federal emergency alert program was designed decades ago to interrupt your TV show or radio station and warn about impending danger — from severe weather events to acts of war.

But people watch TV and listen to radio differently today. If a person is watching Netflix, listening to Spotify or playing a video game, for example, they might miss a critical emergency alert altogether.

"More and more people are opting out of the traditional television services," said Gregory Touhill, a cybersecurity expert who served at the Department of Homeland security and was the first-ever Federal Chief Information Security Officer. "There's a huge population out there that needs to help us rethink how we do this."

Possible vs. practical

Adding federal alerts to those platforms might not entirely be a technical issue, at least on the government's end. The service has already been updated to include smartphones.

And FEMA, the agency that manages the system's technology, told CNN Business that there are "no known technical hurdles involved in transmitting alerts" to devices that are connected to the internet. In fact, the agency has a way to do that, according to a FEMA spokesperson.

But a new tool would need to be developed to distribute alert information to streaming platforms. FEMA said the "unknown quantity" is figuring out who would develop and install the applications.

That's not a simple task, said Touhill, who's now president of the cybersecurity firm Cyxtera Federal Group. He told CNN Business that the required tool would need to be "exquisitely complex." It would need to be thoroughly tested and safeguarded to ensure that only authorized parties have access.

"Is it possible? Yes. Is it practical? Maybe not," Touhill told CNN Business.

Another concern is whether devices connected to the internet are reliable indicators of a person's location. Emergency alerts need to be able to target a specific area so that they only reach people who are at risk.

People on the internet can be traced through their IP addresses — unique strings of numbers assigned to each device that are also associated with a specific set of geographic coordinates. That's how companies like Netflix determine which language and content to show its customers.

But those locations can be unreliable or easily manipulated, Touhill said.

It's also not clear that enough information is there in some cases. A source familiar with Netflix's thinking told CNN Business that the company's ability to pinpoint a customer's exact location may vary depending on that person's internet service provider. That means Netflix might not reliably know a person's location with enough specificity to provide effective emergency alerts.

Congress has considered some of these issues. Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat, proposed a bill last year that called for authorities to look into the feasibility of adding streaming services to the federal emergency alert system.

The READI Act received bipartisan support and passed the Senate, but it died in the House. Schatz's office told CNN Business this week that he plans to refile the bill for the current Congress.

How to improve

Adding streaming platforms to the alert system "is not a bad idea," said National Weather Service senior meteorologist Kevin Laws.

Laws is based in Birmingham and was part of a team that issued warnings to residents when tornadoes struck Alabama last Sunday. His team watches storms on a radar, and their predictions are automatically routed to FEMA's alert system.

But upgrades to the system are expensive and slow. Instead, Laws said he thinks alerts would be better helped through improvements to the type of information that authorities can share when a storm is in the area.

His ideal scenario? A day when storms are tracked automatically and alerts are consistently updated to show residents percentage of the likelihood that they will be affected.

Such a feature would have helped last Sunday, he said, when some storms were particularly strong and unpredictable. Some parts of Alabama received emergency warnings more than half an hour before they were hit. But when a deadly tornado unexpectedly veered toward Lee County, where the death toll reached 23 people, locals were only notified about nine minutes beforehand.

"I've spent many tearful days out there doing this job. And it kills me a little more every time," Laws said, adding that disasters like the one that hit the state will happen again.

"We have to keep improving the system," he said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 34622

Reported Deaths: 1215
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds269748
DeSoto181818
Madison138236
Jones117349
Harrison104014
Rankin103515
Neshoba102274
Lauderdale94281
Forrest93943
Scott79215
Jackson72717
Washington64310
Copiah63115
Leake61320
Lee58621
Holmes57341
Oktibbeha56828
Wayne55416
Warren55320
Yazoo5436
Grenada5357
Lowndes52613
Leflore52256
Lincoln50935
Lamar5027
Pike47020
Sunflower4528
Lafayette4374
Monroe43635
Covington4195
Panola3996
Bolivar38018
Attala37524
Simpson3733
Newton35710
Adams34019
Pontotoc3266
Tate32313
Marion31312
Claiborne29310
Chickasaw29219
Winston28711
Pearl River27632
Noxubee2758
Marshall2693
Jasper2676
Clay25511
Union23811
Smith23412
Walthall2267
Coahoma2156
Clarke21425
Lawrence1992
Yalobusha1938
Kemper18014
Carroll17311
Tallahatchie1664
Humphreys15910
Montgomery1493
Calhoun1475
Tippah14411
Itawamba1418
Hancock13813
Webster12811
Tunica1193
Jefferson1173
Jefferson Davis1164
Prentiss1123
Greene10810
Amite1063
George1023
Wilkinson959
Tishomingo921
Quitman891
Alcorn852
Perry764
Choctaw754
Stone732
Franklin492
Benton420
Sharkey420
Issaquena101
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 49892

Reported Deaths: 1077
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson6030162
Mobile4418137
Montgomery4339109
Tuscaloosa254448
Madison19078
Marshall186611
Shelby150924
Lee149437
Morgan12205
Baldwin111410
Walker105127
Elmore98919
Dallas9639
Franklin92216
Etowah88214
DeKalb8416
Chambers65727
Russell6570
Autauga65313
Butler64328
Tallapoosa61669
Unassigned58626
Limestone5741
Houston5526
Cullman5395
Lauderdale5376
Lowndes48022
St. Clair4692
Colbert4656
Pike4595
Escambia4528
Calhoun4365
Coffee4074
Covington39911
Jackson3742
Bullock37010
Barbour3672
Dale3621
Talladega3497
Hale33722
Marengo33011
Wilcox2968
Clarke2946
Winston2893
Chilton2872
Sumter28512
Blount2731
Pickens2556
Monroe2492
Marion24514
Randolph2449
Conecuh2277
Perry2091
Bibb2081
Macon2069
Choctaw20212
Greene1928
Henry1433
Crenshaw1273
Washington1277
Lawrence1170
Cherokee1127
Geneva920
Lamar811
Fayette781
Clay742
Coosa621
Cleburne411
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