Technology

Faulty Alert

Why the emergency notification about Ahmad Khan Rahami left out some key details

The emergency alert about Ahmad Khan Rahami left out some key details

At 8am Monday morning, millions of people in the New York City area received a phone alert through the government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system announcing that a man named Ahmad Khan Rahami was wanted by law enforcement.

Rahami was taken into custody later Monday morning in Linden, New Jersey, in connection with a Saturday night bombing in Manhattan and a bombing earlier on Saturday in Seaside Park, New Jersey.

But the morning alert was vague. It didn’t provide a picture of Rahami to all phones, and it didn’t make clear what threat if any he posed to public safety. It just gave his name and age. And, as some Twitter users observed, its lack of more identifying details created a potentially dangerous situation for anyone suspected of matching his description.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts system is one of the government’s most powerful tools for reaching people immediately during a crisis, such as a flood or hurricane. That’s why it’s used to push Amber alerts and to notify us about other immediate threats to public safety.

But as New York magazine noted earlier on Monday, the FCC has strict rules about wireless emergency alerts. They can be just 90 characters long and cannot contain photos. Additionally, because the alerts are sent through cell towers, they target hazily defined geographic areas.

The FCC wants to change the restrictions, but in an April letter to the FCC, Verizon said that expanding the capabilities of these messages would overwhelm networks, conflict with older phones, or simply not be technology feasible. Companies like Apple and AT&T also balk at making any changes.

As Hakan Erdogmus, a Carnegie Mellon professor who has extensively studied the issue,told Motherboard last month, “There is… open resistance from wireless carriers and platform developers to the idea of adding more functionality to the system.”

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