On Tuesday, people in Japan with national broadcaster NHK’s app installed on their phones were sent an alert urging them to take cover after a likely missile launch by North Korea. “NHK news alert. North Korea likely to have launched missile. The government J alert: Evacuate inside the building or underground,” the notification read, according to CNN. It was a false alarm.
The news alert was sent at 6:55PM local time via NHK’s app and website. The broadcaster reportedly corrected the error five minutes later. The mistake is being blamed on a “switching error,” NHK World reported.
The message was sent as part of the government’s J-Alert system, which was launched in 2007 so that local authorities could directly warn people of imminent threats including natural disasters, and nuclear and armed attacks, according to the Centre for Public Impact.
“Before we introduced the new system, we had to depend on local officials to relay emergency information to households, sometimes in a primitive way like getting in their cars and driving around to alert residents,” Takashi Ito, a fire and disaster official, told Terra Daily in 2007 when the new system was launching. “But we wouldn’t have that much time to evacuate in such events as a missile attack. With the new system, we could give alerts to people much more quickly.”
But the issue now isn’t immediacy, but accuracy. Japan’s false alarm comes just days after an incorrect alert was sent to residents in Hawaii. The notification read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” But a few terrifying minutes later, the missile alert warning was reported as a mistake. Hawaii Governor David Ige told CNN that “an employee pushed the wrong button”, a seemingly easy screwup to make given the emergency system’s flawed design. As WIRED noted, all it took was clicking on the wrong option in a drop-down menu to spark mass panic.
And the erroneous message in Japan isn’t the nation’s first: In July, the Japan Coast Guard issued a “navigation warning” to ships “in and around Japan as well as Southeast Asia”, alerting them that North Korea had launched a missile, according to The Japan Times. The mishap reportedly happened during a drill, and was withdrawn after about 40 minutes when a coast guard official “in another section noticed the mistake”.
Donald Trump’s threats of starting a nuclear war certainly signal a need for rapid warning systems. But if the systems in place are so easy to screw up that a simple human error can send entire states and nations fleeing for cover and messaging loved ones, the systems are in desperate need of a refresh. Or, perhaps more importantly, we need more rational and competent leaders with access to the buttons.