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Cellular text messaging services are increasingly being relied upon to disseminate critical information during emergencies. Accordingly, a wide range of organizations including colleges and universities now partner with third-party providers that promise to improve physical security by rapidly delivering such messages. Unfortunately, these products do not work as advertised due to limitations of cellular infrastructure and therefore provide a false sense of security to their users. In this paper, we perform the first extensive investigation and characterization of the limitations of an Emergency Alert System (EAS) using text messages as a security incident response mechanism. We show emergency alert systems built on text messaging not only can meet the 10 minute delivery requirement mandated by the WARN Act, but also potentially cause other voice and SMS traffic to be blocked at rates upward of 80 percent. We then show that our results are representative of reality by comparing them to a number of documented but not previously understood failures. Finally, we analyze a targeted messaging mechanism as a means of efficiently using currently deployed infrastructure and third-party EAS. In so doing, we demonstrate that this increasingly deployed security infrastructure does not achieve its stated requirements for large populations.
Date of Publication: June 2012