New York City residents and commuters were collectively startled Monday morning by a blaring notification on their mobile phones.
The alert followed the bombing in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood Saturday night. It warned people to look out for suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, and to call authorities if they spot him. Rahami has since been captured.
Most smartphone users should be familiar with this type of alert, known as a Wireless Emergency Alert. Local, state, or federal government agencies can send out WEAs in three cases, according to the Federal Communications Commission:
- Alerts issued by the President
- Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
- Amber Alerts
The latter two alerts can be turned off on individual phones, but alerts from the president cannot.
Anyone who has been in an area where an extreme weather event was about to happen has probably seen a WEA. Your phone vibrates playing a high-pitched note at full volume. It is supposedly sent out to all phones located in the area of concern.
It is unclear whether the WEA ultimately helped in Rahami’s capture, but it appears to be the first time the system is used to warn that a dangerous person is at large. In light of this, some have argued that the alert was misused.
In a post on New York Magazine’s “Select All” blog, Brian Feldman says that the notification gave too little information.
“It even acknowledges its own shortcomings,” Feldman writes. “‘See media for pic’ is a stilted way of saying ‘Um, Google it.’ It provides no useful contextual information, warns of no imminent danger.”
Many recipients might not even fully understand what “See media for pic” means. What media? You mean the news media? Or the media attached to this alert? Wait, there is no attachment… Ugh.
WEAs are currently limited to 90 characters of text without images or hyperlinks.
Arming people only with the knowledge that the suspect has a Muslim-sounding name, this WEA could have caused a lot of problems, Feldman says. Hate crimes against Muslims generally spike in the aftermath of an attack perpetrated by a Muslim.
But New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill praised the alert as having an “extraordinary effect.”
“If we can get everybody in the city engaged in helping us keep it safe, I think this is the way to go, this is the future,” O’Neill said at a press conference with De Blasio.
The decision to push out the alert came from New York City authorities, according to the New York Times. This indicates that authorities were invoking the second reason from the FCC conditions above, as it was neither an Amber alert nor was it from the president. The question remains whether Monday’s WEA was used correctly in alerting New Yorkers of an “imminent threat to safety or life.”
With the exception of people who took the time at some point to turn WEAs off on their phones, the alert was sent with the intention of sending information and instruction to everyone in the New York City area. As such, Monday’s incident serves as a reminder of the many ways technology connects us to our environment in ways that are to some extent beyond our control.