My college has set-up a Text Alert messaging system to alert students, faculty and staff in the event of a campus emergency. Fortunately, we've never had to use the system, but the study I've linked to here raises some doubts about whether such a system would be effective in the event of an actual emergency. Looking at the tragedy at Virgina Tech, the study calculates that it would have taken between 15 and 62 minutes for all of the messages sent to reach the recipients. The study also points to the fact that a number of factors can effect the order in which messages are received. Another scary limitation of the system is that messages cannot be authenticated, so it is possible for a fraudulent message - potentially from an attacker - to appear as a valid alert. According to the study,
it is possible for any individual with an Internet connection to inject messages with arbitrary contents to anyone with a cellular phone.Clearly, an attacker would have to gain access to the individual mobile numbers that have opted into the alert system, but with recent data losses and breaches at a variety of institutions, it's not that far fetched. Such malicious messages could potentially cause more confusion in a crisis situation. Interesting results from a new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology, that indicate that "Text-message alert systems may be ineffective in the event of large-scale emergencies."
Wired Campus: Report Finds Problems With Text-Message Alert Systems
“In particular, because of the architecture of cellular networks, such systems will not be able to deliver a high volume of emergency messages in a short period of time,” says the report, titled “Characterizing the Limitations of Third-Party EAS Over Cellular Text Messaging Services.”
Through a series of experiments, Mr. Traynor concluded that modern cellular networks are incapable of meeting the 10-minute alert goal that has been established by the federal Emergency Alert System charter. Moreover, the high volume of traffic from a third-party alert system has the potential to block 911 calls and communication among emergency personnel, the report states.