Terrible UI Caused Hawaii’s Missile Scare

Terrible UI Caused Hawaii’s Missile Scare

Over the weekend, residents of Hawaii endured 38 searing minutes after a false alarm was broadcast to the entire island chain. A message claiming ballistic missiles were already inbound on Hawaii wasn’t rescinded for nearly three-quarters of an hour, leaving residents to prepare for what many thought could be the end. The threat might have been received differently if tensions with North Korea were lower, but repeated rounds of threats between North Korea and the United States have raised concerns about the real potential for an attack.

The mistaken warning has been characterized as a push of the wrong button, but it’s better understood as a catastrophic failure of the UI. Consider the image below. The new “BMD False Alarm” option has been added only since the initial attack warning was sent out on Saturday. The red box (PACOM (CDW) – STATE ONLY, and located just under the words “TEST Message”) is the setting that triggered panic on Saturday. The green box (DRILL – PACOM (CDW) – STATE ONLY) is the option that should have been used to test the system without causing a statewide panic.

Correct drill (green) incorrect drill (red), and the new “False Alarm” option (purple).
Correct drill (green) incorrect drill (red), and the new “False Alarm” option (purple).

The FCC has announced an investigation into the event, which exposed a limit in Hawaii’s Emergency Alert system — namely, its own inability to automatically retract or correct a previously issued message. Instead, the refutation had to be issued manually, which contributed to the delay in getting the message out. The FCC has released a statement from Chairperson Ajit Pai, which reads:

The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable. It caused a wave of panic across the state—worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert was issued. Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies.

The FCC’s investigation into this incident is well underway. We have been in close contact with federal and state officials, gathering the facts about how this false alert was issued. Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert.

(wfoojjaec would like to respectfully inform the FCC that no one puts two spaces after a period anymore).

The situation in Hawaii clearly shows the emergency warning system is flawed. At the same time, obsessing over a mistake in that system seems to somewhat miss the larger point. A few years ago, such warnings, while still extremely serious, would’ve almost certainly been as confusing as they were ominous. Who, after all, would’ve been attacking? The fact that so many people were completely convinced by the warning is its own indictment of the political situation between the US and North Korea. Unfortunately, practical solutions to the problem seem fairly remote.

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