At around eight o’clock this morning, anyone in New York City who has emergency alerts turned on got a blaring message on their smartphone — the kind that plays an elongated, piercing tone that can shake the earth and rouse the dead. In this case, the alert concerned the Chelsea bombing that occurred on Saturday night, injuring more than two dozen people. Other bombs were found at a New Jersey train station. It reads:
WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen.
This is an extremely bad push alert to blast across the greater New York area.
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs for short), are to be used, according to the FCC, in three cases: Amber Alerts, alerts from the president, and alerts involving imminent threats to safety.
This alert serves none of those purposes. It even acknowledges its own shortcomings: “See media for pic” is a stilted way of saying “Um, Google it.” It provides no useful contextual information, warns of no imminent danger. It essentially deputizes the five boroughs and encourages people to treat anyone who looks like he might be named “Ahmad Khan Rahami” with suspicion. In a country where people are routinely harassed and assaulted for just appearing to be Muslim, this is remarkably ill-advised.
It’s worth noting that one component of this alert’s disastrousness is technical in nature: As Motherboard explained last month, WEAs are woefully incapable of conveying useful information. Their geotargeting is poorly calibrated. Worse, the messages are limited to 90 plain-text characters only; no photos, no hyperlinks.
But the inadequacies of the WEA system aren’t necessarily a bad thing: The government should probably not have a direct vector through which it can blast citizens with rich text and mugshots. And, frankly, if the people in charge of sending out alerts can’t see that drafting an entire city into a national-security operation on the basis of a single name is a terrible idea, there’s no reason to think that giving them more tools will fix the problem.