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When the Government Seems to Take Over Your Phone

Ask Walt: How to manage government-issued alerts on your phone and whether to upgrade from Windows XP.

You have some tech questions, I have some answers. Every Friday, I try to resolve these mysteries, succinctly and in plain language. Please send questions to Note that I won’t be able to diagnose your personal tech glitches and problems. I also reserve the right to edit questions for length or clarity, and to combine similar inquiries.

Q. I was recently awakened by a very loud government-issued emergency weather alert on my iPhone warning of flash flooding in my area. I have two questions: Can the government take over my phone for this purpose anytime it wants? And is there a way to turn these alerts off?

A. These alerts are the result of an agreement between the major phone carriers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and include warnings like yours from the National Weather Service. They are a special kind of text message, sent in a special manner to avoid network congestion. And they use a harsh, repeated sound, meant to grab your attention. Even if your sound is off, they will cause a distinctive vibration. There are several types, including Amber Alerts issued by law enforcement to find missing children, and emergency alerts about things like dangerous weather.

According to the mobile industry trade association, phone users are automatically enrolled to receive them. More information is here.

iPhone Government Alerts

Yes, you can turn them off, though I personally recommend against doing so, since they could save your life or the lives of others. On your iPhone, go to Settings, then Notification Center, and scroll all the way to the bottom. You’ll see a section called “Government Alerts” that will allow you to turn the different types on or off. On Android phones, the method for disabling these alerts can vary from model to model and brand to brand. On the latest Samsung Galaxy phone, the S5, you will find the controls in Settings, Applications, then Messages, then Emergency Alerts.

Q. Given the security vulnerabilities, I wanted to ask about whether I need to upgrade away from Windows XP. I’m using a nearly nine-year-old Mac laptop where I use Parallels to run XP so I can use the Windows version of Quicken. I only surf to my financial sites in Parallels, and don’t check emails. Given the age of the laptop, is it worth upgrading the Windows OS?

A. There are several issues here. First: Yes, yes, yes, you should get rid of XP and adopt Windows 7 or 8. Windows XP is 13 years old and vulnerable, and Microsoft isn’t offering regular security updates for it anymore. It’s even worse that you are surfing to sensitive financial sites with it. Just because you are doing all this in the virtual PC that Parallels creates on a Mac doesn’t change things. Such virtual machines are, for all intents and purposes, like real Windows computers, and are affected by the same malware that can strike Windows, even if it doesn’t affect Macs.

However, as you note, your Mac is itself very old, and I’m not even sure it can accommodate the newer versions of Parallels that can run the newer versions of Windows. So moving into a safer environment for your Quicken use could cost you money for a new version of Windows, a new version of Parallels, and a new Mac. Or, you could buy a cheap PC for this purpose only, running a new, more secure edition of Windows and Quicken.

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