On Monday, September 19, millions in the New York metropolitan area received the familiar emergency message most often used for inclement weather or abductions. However, this message neither warned of severe weather nor described an automobile—it instead identified Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man allegedly responsible for the recent explosions in Manhattan and New Jersey, as a wanted man.

The emergency message system, known as the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, has existed since 2012, but Monday marked the first time it had been used “as an electronic wanted poster.” WEA messages are authorized by FEMA and are transmitted via cellular towers in a form similar to text messages but on a completely separate system.

In a world where the ubiquity of cellphones has surpassed that of any preceding technology, the WEA system is a potentially powerful weapon in the hands of law enforcement, allowing them nearly instantaneous access to millions of potential informants. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged in a press conference that law enforcement planned to use the tool again in the future.

However, anyone who received the WEA message on Monday might have noticed something peculiar about what the message did not include: a photo. In fact, the message did not even include a URL to a photo of the wanted man, instead directing recipients to “See media for pic.”

As it turns out, there is a very good reason for the absence of a photograph or link. FCC regulations prohibit embedding photographs or URLs in such alerts. The same regulation also prohibits embedding phone numbers, which might be useful to set up a hotline of some kind.

While transmitting a suspect’s name and age to millions of citizens remains a powerful tool, the inability to include a photograph or links lessens its effectiveness and magnifies its risk. Many recipients are likely to ignore the direction to obtain a photograph of the suspect from the media, whereas they may have been more likely to access a provided link. Furthermore, by directing people to “the media” for a photograph, law enforcement relies on a third party to convey crucial information to citizens. This is not without risk.

The solution to the problem seems simple enough, and the FCC preliminarily voted to amend the WEA regulations and allow content such as photographs or links. However, this proposed solution is not without dissenters—namely, wireless providers such as AT&T and Verizon.

These companies warn that expanding the features of emergency alerts to include embedded URLs would leave less room for critical directions and would increase the risk of communication failure due to network congestion. While embedded links do use a portion of the allotted word count, so do directions like “See media for details.” Also, word count is similarly regulated and could be expanded to accommodate the addition of links. The network congestion concern is also curious, as it is unclear how alert recipients accessing information via embedded URL would congest cellular networks anymore than those recipients searching the internet for media portrayals of the suspect. As noted above, less people are likely to use the cellular network if no link is provided, so AT&T/Verizon may in fact be noting potential network congestion of such a readily accessible link.

The FCC will consider a proposed rule on September 29 to expand the capabilities of the WEA, which would represent a major step forward in empowering law enforcement to utilize the full facets of WEA technology. However, the debates surrounding the WEA system are unlikely to end any time soon. In fact, as the technology becomes more pervasive and useful, it may run into a whole new host of concerns about privacy, both of recipients and identified suspects. After all, these pictures would be transmitted not only to potential informants but also potential jurors.

–Christian Kerr

One Response to Regulatory Hurdles for Wireless Emergency Alerts

  1. dsowder says:

    It seems apparent that a WEA expansion to include photographs and embedded URLs, as in the specific case you mentioned, could cause problems with ensuring that a defendant receives a fair trial by an unbiased jury. With respect to using the WEA system for “wanted posters” and other announcements, I would to know which entity or public official would decide what messages are permitted to be broadcast on the WEA system and whether access to the system would have to be changed as a result. Additionally, I would presume that the FCC would issue further regulations or guidance to once a WEA expansion takes place.

    In addition to the potential legal issues that would accompany a possible expansion of the WEA system, there are also practical considerations as well. For example, it is possible that a WEA expansion would decrease the effectiveness of the WEA system generally. If “emergency” messages are issued on regular basis, there is a likelihood that people will give less credence to the message contents or ignore them altogether. Finally, including URLs and pictures would probably not be effective if a large portion of the targeted population does not have a large enough data plan (or the capability to use data on their wireless device) to use the embedded URLs. It would be very interesting to see how this expansion would work in practice.