DeMint wary of emergency text alerts

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is worried about a new program that sends emergency alerts to customers' cell phones.

DeMint helped author the original provision for voluntary emergency alerts that eventually passed as part of the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act in 2006, but his office said he is willing to fight any messaging system that isn't completely voluntary for the public.

The Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, allows authorities to send geographically targeted alerts similar to text messages to customers in areas under the immediate threat of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other public-safety emergency. 

Carriers can give consumers the option of blocking from their phones geographically targeted messages and Amber Alerts issued in cases of child abduction, but not emergency messages issued directly by the president. 

The inability to opt out of presidential messages is a point of contention for DeMint, his office said Wednesday. 

It is unclear how the the presidential messages would differ from the other emergency alerts; the Federal Communications Commission failed to elaborate on the difference when contacted this week.

DeMint isn't the only senator with support from the Tea Party Movement who has some concerns about the effort. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he wants to learn more about it to ensure it doesn't involve any type of tracking device that allows authorities to keep tabs on members of the public. He noted that federal surveillance programs have been sold as innocuous in the past.

"A lot of times things are sold as being for security or for communications and it's supposed to be all rosy scenario, no problem, not very controversial," Paul said. "And then when you get into the nitty-gritty of them, maybe we were sacrificing some civil liberties to this. And I think we have to be very careful about something like that."

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled PLAN Tuesday at the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

"One shortcoming that was exposed on 9/11 is that emergency authorities didn't have the ability to send alerts with vital instructions to people's mobile phones — nor the ability to break through network congestion," Genachowski said. "Today, we announce that that's about to change."

Carriers currently participating include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless. To receive the alerts, users' mobile devices must include a chip that is currently only included in some smartphones. There is no charge for receiving PLAN alerts.