Should Wireless Emergency Alerts Be Used to Help Catch Terror Suspects?

By Michael Hill

In a noisy, still nervous New York City Monday morning, a sound blared on millions of smartphones with this alert: “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-year-old male. See media for pic. Call 911 if seen.”

It was the first time the city — and perhaps any government entity — had ever used the Wireless Emergency Alert System to target a terrorism suspect. Since 2012, the government and mobile carriers have used WEA for weather and missing child alerts.

FEMA authorizes alert originators to go through mobile carriers to send messages to a specific area through geofencing — in this case, all smartphones in New York’s five boroughs but some phones with New York and New Jersey area codes in Secaucus and North Bergen and elsewhere received the alerts as well.

“From what we know right now it definitely contributed to the successful apprehension of this suspect,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The 911 tip that led to Rahami’s capture came from a man who had seen Rahami’s picture on television.

“Everybody put out an alert. I think the original alert came from the FBI. The city of Elizabeth and other agencies shared that alert through social media in order to effectuate the arrest and the attentive business owner in Linden then followed through on it,” said Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

“We think it’s a very valuable tool. We think it created a lot of focus and urgency,” de Blasio said.

The reaction to the new usage of this alert system — both kind and unkind on Twitter.

One tweet: Seems they’re more optimized for panic.

Another: Awesome to get the alerts on our phones yesterday. This should happen for any natural disaster or attack.

WEA messages are limited to 90 characters — less than two-thirds of a tweet — no pictures, no website links. They go to phones enabled to get the messages and not configured to opt out.

Later this month, the FCC will consider a massive overhaul: expanding to 360 characters, adding web links and phone numbers and multimedia content and maybe other languages.

Industry reaction: Apple warned “…long alerts may inundate the user with information, leading to less user comprehension and increasing the likelihood of user opt-out.”

AT&T said, “…embedding URLs [or links] in all WEA messages poses a threat of congesting wireless networks.”

The Competitive Carriers Association said, “…the Commission also should allow participating providers the flexibility to opt out of the WEA program…”

Another industry group, CTIA, said, “Wireless emergency alerts play an increasingly important role as a ‘bell ringer’ in times of emergency… In our efforts to continually improve WEA, the wireless industry is preparing a trial to determine if multimedia capabilities — like photos and videos — could be included in future alerts in a manner that does not cause harmful network congestion or technical issues.”

Whatever the outcome, anticipate more WEA warnings blaring on your smartphone.