Desperate times call for desperate measures. Yet should there be reservations and limitations?
As New Yorkers were heading to work on the morning of Monday, September 19th, they saw their cellphones chiming all at once across the entire city. This was no hack or childish prank. A dissonant siren, repeated six times in total, was sent out along with a short and yet alarming note reading: “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”
It is not like that the residents of one of the largest and most dangerous cities on earth have not received such emergency alerts in the past. Violent weather conditions, such as the Jonas storm that hit in January of this year, prompted authorities to alert people and advise them to seek cover indoors and remain there. AMBER alerts, using the same method, occasionally call on people to keep their eyes open for abducted children in their specific area.
But should “alert” messages encourage the ordinary public into assisting police in a manhunt for a possibly armed suspect ready to open fire on innocent people, or place others with similar specifications at risk?
A new experience
Many agree New Yorkers began their day on September 19th with a completely new type of alert. This alert was literally calling on the general public to join the police effort for a wanted man, and of course, placing them at harms way if the suspect realized millions of people would be hunting him down. Can anyone guarantee in a future case a hypothetical suspect would not panic and begin opening fire on a large crowd with a military-style automatic rifle?
Who authorized the message?
Such emergency messages in the Big Apple are authorized from the Office of Emergency Management, in charge to send push alerts to subscribed mobile users in their specific jurisdictions. This office is known to coordinate with other city agencies to send out alerts. These message must be either official AMBER emergency messages, or consist of “imminent threats to safety or life” of the general public. The National Weather Service is usually responsible for sending weather-related alerts.
The NYPD contacted the Office of Emergency Management at around 7:45 am on Monday, September the 19th, requesting an emergency message sent out to all five NYC boroughs regarding a primary suspect sought in relation to a chain of bombings taken place in New York and New Jersey. Officials came to a decision that the emergency message was relevant to an imminent threat for the public, and thus drafted and dispatched the message in a mere 15 minutes.
The effort rendered the arrest of Rahami in New Jersey following a shootout against the police on Monday even before their lunch break. How the police tracked the suspect down remains a mystery.
The alert sent out on Monday was the second such emergency notification that involved the weekend’s bomb frenzy. After the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan was rocked with the sound of an explosion on Saturday, September 17th, NYC officials decided to send an emergency message only alerting cellphone users near that particular neighborhood, asking them to stay clear from their windows. This was perceived as a wise move not causing panic to a more general public, and encouraging locals to carry out measures to further guarantee their safety.
A similar alert was sent following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing issuing instructions to people around the blast area to quickly seek refuge in some kind of shelter. However, the Boston emergency message did not identify a particular suspect.
The NYC Office of Emergency Management was the pioneer in using alert messages after the system’s introduction in 2012. Four years down the road, however, this technology remain limited to the same boundaries. Messages can only consist of 90 characters, even less than Twitter; no photos or other attachments are supported (explaining why the NYC message did not include a suspect photo); and messages cannot contain phone numbers or URL links on mobile devices.
The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 attempted to completely take out the emergency message system, leading to a major rebellion from wireless carriers. The FCC had recommended, among other measures, extended emergency message lengths, allowing web links and enhancing the early-stage geo-targeting technology.
How does the system work?
How the cellphone technology works enables officials to send alert messaging targeting a specific area. After a local agency outlines a wireless alert message for a defined area, the text is sent to wireless carriers who dispatch the message to customers through cell towers located in the targeted area. The majority of providers use a separate channel from usual methods cellphones receive SMS, voice and other signals from cell towers. This enables the providers to guarantee the delivery of an alert message despite any cellphone traffic.
Only a small amount of data about the suspect was provided to cellphone users in the September 19th message sent by the NYPD. Only those who took the time to go online to search for a photo on Rahami and learn more about him would be provided with an image and a description sent out by the police to the media.
And the criticism
Much concern and criticism was raised regarding the decision made by NYC authorities to send such an emergency message to the entire city, meaning nearly 10 million people. On Twitter people described the effort leading to “paranoia” about a “vaguely” described man, which could lead to a “dangerous” measures by ordinary people against those who may even look like him. Imagine if you had similar specifications and people began starring at you when you were eating breakfast while walking to work.
Going as far as publicly identifying a suspect that remains at large can be quite a risky measure. In Boston, a strange chain reaction ended in major news organizations mistakenly identifying 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi being the wanted marathon bomber. The young man must have been terrified, as he went missing afterwards, and God knows what was said about him on social media.
Dallas police also experienced a similar case after a sniper ruthless pinned down and killed five police officers earlier this year. City authorities decided to tweet a photo consisting of a man with a gun placed over his shoulder. The photo came with a caption, “Please help us find him!” Mark Hughes, the African-American man in the photo, came out to be not anywhere involved in the horrifying incident. And yet, thousands of death messages were sent to his social media accounts as a result.
Could the lack of necessary information place ordinary citizens of any town or city in clear and present danger of being wrongly profiled, and thus harmed by an improperly informed individual or group of individuals? Does the importance of sending out vital information in desperate times outweigh the threats posed by emergency message system limitations?
While some may point out to the prompt arrest of Rahami a few hours following the emergency message as proof of wise decision making by the authorities and the useful nature of the alert system, there must also be reservations about the dangers and threats unwantedly caused for innocent individuals through the course of such measures.