Ahmad Khan Rahami is taken into custody after a shootout with police Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Linden, N.J. Rahami was wanted for questioning in the bombings that rocked the Chelsea neighborhood of N
( Moshe Weiss
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Just before eight in the morning last Monday, millions of New York City cell phones started sounding the alarm, literally. A Wireless Emergency Alert, more commonly used for weather warnings and AMBER alerts was deployed for the first time in the service of a manhunt. Following last Saturday's explosions in New York's Chelsea neighborhood and the discovery of five more devices in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the call for vigilance was short and sweet. Okay, maybe not sweet.
ANNOUNCER: Wanted, Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-year-old male, see media for picture, call 911, if seen.
BOB GARFIELD: Not a whole lot of information there. Who was Rahami, what was he wanted for, what did he look like? Google it, the message seemed to say. That's because it basically couldn't say anything else. The FCC has rules, perhaps obsolete ones, governing such phone alerts. The agency is eager to exploit up-to-date technology to deliver more and more pertinent information, but it's running into resistance. Mark Harris wrote about the Wireless Emergency Alert system for the website Motherboard last month. Mark, welcome to On the Media.
MARK HARRIS: A pleasure to be here, thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: What was your reaction when you saw that the system had been employed this way?
MARK HARRIS: My first reaction was actually, great. You know, we’ve seen it being used successfully for AMBER alerts for years. Now, when I drilled down and actually saw the message [LAUGHS], it did send a little shiver down my spine. The vagueness of that message seemed to be a license for people receiving it to perhaps target people of the age and the ethnicity that the name suggested.
BOB GARFIELD: Wireless Alerts like this were introduced waa-aay back in 2012, which may as well be the Jurassic period. What's happened to the technology since?
MARK HARRIS: Absolutely nothing. And, in fact, that technology that was introduced in 2012 was actually based on technology back from the 1990s. And the idea back in 2012 was well, you know what, there are still plenty of 2G phones around. Obviously, things have moved on since then and now modern phones do have the capability to actually accept longer messages.
BOB GARFIELD: And there's a move afoot to expand the size of these alerts. Their 90-character limit is about what, two-thirds of a tweet. How much bigger and more detailed can they get?
MARK HARRIS: The agencies that issue these alerts, the AMBER Alerts, the Weather Service and now these Manhunt Alerts, they’ve kind of settled on 360 characters as a good length of a message. And, particularly, they also want to include things like photos, maps. They want users to be able to click on a phone number or click on a website to get more information or to report a sighting. And they also want much better geo-targeting, much better localization of these alerts, so that they only go to the people who really need them.
BOB GARFIELD: We get that based on the configuration of our surrounding towers - and the state-of-the-art isn't that artful, right - it's difficult to reach exactly the right audience for even an approaching nor'easter.
MARK HARRIS: Right now, an alerting agency will highlight an area on a map that they think is going to be affected by an event. Now, that has be translated by the wireless carriers into particular cell towers because the message goes out at the moment to every single phone that’s currently attached to that cell tower. They choose a larger footprint, so they make sure they get everybody they want to hit, and so, you end up with people who will receive that message who are just not appropriate; perhaps they live away from a river that’s about to be flooded.
Now, the idea is that if you leverage these technologies that we have on our phones, the GPS systems and the other location services that can locate your phone to within a few meters, then that’s actually a much smarter way to do it, and then it ensures that when the message arrives on your phone your phone then decides, actually, I'm not quite in the area that this message is specified for, so I won’t display it. It could even be even smarter and it could say, well, actually, your phone isn’t in the area right now, but the area of the alert is perhaps where your child's school is. And so, it’s a much more intelligent way to manage the alert. And it means that there’ll be fewer false alarms and then fewer people who are opting out of potentially valuable alerts in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: But the people who would have to deploy this technology, the, the telecoms, Verizon and so forth, and the hardware manufacturers of the phones are not necessarily - wild about the prospects.
MARK HARRIS: Yeah, they’ve got a lot of objections. They kind of vary from quite valid concerns about, well, you know what, if we put a clickable web link in an emergency message, what if everyone clicks on it at the same time and that creates the kind of network congestion you see at big sporting events, whereas, if you included a special link in the message that’s linked through to a page that just had one image, you’re actually talking about much less data flowing across the network and actually a much more controllable experience. They’re also worried about just really actually having to do the work.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a lot of criticism about the Rahami alert on slippery slope grounds. You know, was it really necessary? Was anything gained? And how can we trust the government, which has a very nasty habit of overusing the tools that it has at its disposal, whether it’s police powers or intelligence gathering or actual physical equipment? Can we trust the government to be scrupulous in its application? In fact, some people mentioned the Ray Bradbury book and the movie, Fahrenheit 451.
ELECTRONIC VOICE: Calling all citizens. Wanted for murder. Montag. Occupation, fireman. The criminal is alone and on foot. Let each one stand at his front door, look and listen.
BOB GARFIELD: Is that a reasonable concern?
MARK HARRIS: I think it’s always a reasonable concern when the government can reach into your pocket. But I think there are reasons to be not quite so fearful of it. For a start, obviously, you can turn these off. You can turn off the AMBER alerts, you can turn off the Imminent Threat alerts, which include the weather and things like this manhunt. You can’t turn off the Presidential alerts, but they’ve never been issued anyway. And then, secondly, we haven't seen any history of agencies overusing these in the past. The agencies that I've seen comments from are really being quite overcautious about when to deploy these alerts, precisely to avoid alert fatigue. And, in fact, it’s more of just an updating. We used to watch television with breaking news alerts, but we don't do that anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess one of the most prominent emergency alert foul-ups recently was in the wake of the Texas shootings, in which the Dallas police issued a tweet with an image of a guy who they said was a person of interest because he was seen in the crowd carrying a semiautomatic long gun. It turns out that, you know, it’s an open carry state and the guy was, sadly, within his rights to be standing there watching, with a – [LAUGHS] with an AR 15 on his shoulder. But it was mistaken identity and, among other things, a, a complete wild goose chase.
MARK HARRIS: I think one of the strengths of the Wireless Emergency Alert system is that it's not just a question of going to your computer and pressing Send on a tweet. There is this structure in place where any alerts have to go through a system that’s designed by FCC and FEMA, and various people have to sign off on a message before it actually gets sent out. Inevitably, there will be mistakes, of course, and you can always issue another alert. [LAUGHS] But we haven't really seen sort of big mistake with Wireless Emergency Alerts yet.
Obviously, I think the messages could be more useful. This most recent alert kind of shows the strength and the weakness of the system. To be able to issue an alert, for example, stay away from a window on a certain block in New York because, you know, there might be an explosion seems a fantastic idea, but being able to just put a name and an age of a person is really less useful. And so, you can see how adding a photo to that could definitely add utility. So I think this is a great step for bringing it to people's attention, and I think it only highlights the decision that the FCC, you know, hopefully will take next week when it meets to bring these Wireless Emergency Alerts truly into the 21st century.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK HARRIS: Thanks a lot. It’s been a real pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Harris is a freelance technology reporter. He wrote about the Wireless Emergency Alert system for the website Motherboard.