Yesterday morning, millions of phones across New York City’s five boroughs blared with a siren-like alarm and an ominous message. "Wanted: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic," it said. "Call 9-1-1 if seen." Though the text didn’t mention it, Rahami was wanted for questioning over a Saturday bombing in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea — hours later, he would be arrested in Linden, New Jersey, where he was found sleeping in the doorway of a bar.
At a press conference after Rahami was apprehended, newly sworn NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said the phone alert had given police a pivotal advantage. "It gets everybody involved. It’s that sense of shared responsibility," said O’Neill. "If we can get everybody in the city engaged in helping us keep it safe, I think this is the way to go. This is the future."
To many people, though, it was a future with dystopian overtones. The city was accused of promoting racial profiling and needlessly inciting panic with the message, kicking off a manhunt for someone from a minority group that’s often already viewed with suspicion. "It essentially deputizes the five boroughs and encourages people to treat anyone who looks like he might be named ‘Ahmad Khan Rahami’ with suspicion," wrote Brian Feldman at Select All. Boing Boing called it a "Muslim hunt."
According to the city's Office of Emergency Management, the brief nature of the alert was partly due to the limitations of the Wireless Emergency Alert system. Under the current setup, alerts are limited to 90 characters, with no capability for pictures or other attachments. The result was an unusually bare-bones message in an age of rich media. "The alert included as much actionable information as could fit in 90 characters," said OEM press secretary Nancy Silvestri, "while informing the public to call 911 and see media for more information / description of the suspect."
But how unprecedented was the move? It’s difficult to say for sure. The Wireless Emergency Alert system, which the NYC Office of Emergency Management used to send the text, is a four-year-old tool with a variety of potential uses — a joint effort of FEMA, the FCC, and wireless carriers. Along with television and radio alerts, it’s managed through a system called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS. IPAWS allows local law enforcement and public safety agencies to send warnings to phone users within a specific area. In total, 40 different agencies in New York State have the power to send out alerts, including a number of county sheriff’s offices and 911 dispatchers.
"I think this is the way to go. This is the future."
Earlier this year, the FCC said that over 21,000 alerts had gone through the system since it launched in 2012. A large number of these were warnings for things like floods and hurricanes. In fact, that’s all the Office of Emergency Management had used the WEA for until this weekend, when it sent a warning to people near Chelsea shortly after the explosion. "This incident was the first time NYC used the Wireless Emergency Alert system for this type of no-notice incident," Silvestri told The Verge. "Prior to Saturday, our past uses of the system were for extreme weather events." According to The New York Times, the office has issued eight alerts since the system went live in 2012, during Hurricane Sandy and winter storms.
There’s plenty of precedent for the alert in Chelsea, including a shelter-in-place order during the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. But it’s tougher to pin down an exact equivalent to the "wanted" message. Contacted for comment, FEMA said that alerting phone users to a suspicious person wasn’t a new move, pointing The Verge to a handful of previous examples. Two of them, though, were public safety alerts related to active shooter situations, with no names listed.
The third, which took place in Wisconsin last year, is closest to yesterday’s case. It told people to look out for a potentially armed man, who was later found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. "Missing 33 old white male Jess Wehrman. Blk hoodie & jeans. Do not approach call 9-1-1," read the message, which was broadcast over a two-mile radius. There are clear similarities, but the scale is massively different — a patch of a Wisconsin county of under 200,000, versus a dense city of 8 million. As several people pointed out on Twitter, it’s much easier to look at New York and imagine a chilling scene from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which police mobilize an entire neighborhood to hunt down the novel’s protagonist. Unlike a television warning, a text message grabs your attention at all hours of the day, anywhere you go.
The cell phone alert issued for the NYC bomber is just like the ‘open your door’ scene in Fahrenheit 451. Glad we’re moving away from Orwell— Pinboard (@Pinboard) September 19, 2016
Arguably, though, we’ve been living in a version of that world for years. One of the system’s most high-profile uses is for Amber Alerts, which mass-broadcast reports of missing children and have been credited with enabling several rescues. In effect, Americans are periodically deputized to look for things like specific makes of cars in hopes of finding an abducted child. So the question is whether yesterday’s alert will open the door to using the WEA as a routine way to hunt down suspects of any crime, especially after the system is revamped with things like a longer character count and photo capabilities.
The biggest argument against this happening is that it’s in law enforcement agencies’ best interests to avoid it. Well before yesterday’s alert, the WEA system was criticized for waking up millions of people at 4AM to warn of flash-flooding that didn’t affect many of them, and an early Amber Alert in 2013 was knocked for being "cryptic" and intrusive. Though they're automatically signed up, users can opt out of both Amber Alerts and imminent danger warnings. (The only alerts that are truly non-negotiable are direct messages from the president, which so far have never been sent.) If phones start regularly blaring with non-emergency messages, users are likely to turn the alerts off. Conversely, people who actually want to receive more alerts can sign up for existing services like Notify NYC.
Based on what we know, yesterday's manhunt text was the first of its kind. It could well be an outlier, a rare exception in a system that people will mostly only notice during natural disasters. But if it is the future, it will open up a whole new set of questions about policing and surveillance — and how much we really want America's most wanted in our pockets.