Sunday, July 22, 2018
Opinion

Does 'wanted' text blast to millions help more than it hurts?

A few minutes before 8 a.m. Monday, millions of New Yorkers' phones screeched almost simultaneously. They all received the same notification: Ahmad Khan Rahami was wanted.

That's it. No links, no pictures, no further context — no one to call except 911. I got the alert while feeding my toddler breakfast, and in my pre-coffee haze, I glanced at my phone and mistook it for an Amber Alert. Elsewhere in the city, subway cars full of people must have looked up from their phones and regarded one another warily. Might one of their fellow passengers be Ahmad Khan Rahami? Young men with brown skin might well have wondered: Might one of my fellow passengers mistake me for Ahmad Khan Rahami?

The alert appears to have been the first of its kind, the New York Times reports. That is, it's the first time the Wireless Emergency Alerts system has been used as a sort of virtual "WANTED" poster as opposed to its more familiar uses in weather emergencies or child abductions. The alert went out throughout New York City, and that the decision to use the system for that purpose came from the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

By noon, the suspect in question had been arrested. There's no evidence, at this point, that the mobile push notification helped authorities find him.

De Blasio's press secretary, Eric Phillips, said on Twitter that the ability to use mobile push notifications in a manhunt is an "important added capacity" for law enforcement:

But others criticized authorities' decision to use the system in this way. In New York magazine, Brian Feldman called it "an extremely bad push alert to blast across the greater New York area:"

It provides no useful contextual information, warns of no imminent danger. It essentially deputizes the five boroughs and encourages people to treat anyone who looks like he might be named "Ahmad Khan Rahami" with suspicion. In a country where people are routinely harassed and assaulted for just appearing to be Muslim, this is remarkably ill-advised.

Feldman is right that the notification was seriously flawed. And yet I also think Phillips is also right that the ability for authorities to reach people on their cellphones could be important, if used judiciously.

It's a tenet of good crime reporting that you don't describe a suspect unless you have enough information that people could realistically distinguish that individual from others of similar age, race, build, etc. So to enlist the public in a hunt for, say, a "28-year-old male with dark skin, medium build, and brown facial hair" would be dangerous folly. You're asking people to go after a stereotype, not an individual.

On the other hand, if you have a clear photo of the suspect's face, you publish it, while describing the suspect in as much detail as possible. Countless crimes have been solved because a member of the public happened to spot a suspect whose face they had seen in the news. There's still a real risk of false positives, which has to be taken seriously. But depending on the severity of the crime, it could be outweighed by the public safety interest of catching the perpetrator.

In this case, the notification included neither a description nor a face, but a name. That's better than a vague description, because it identifies an individual rather than a stereotype. No doubt there are people in New York City and the surrounding area who know Rahami personally but were not aware that he was wanted. If the notification reached those people, it could spur them to provide information that would help authorities track him down.

But if a name is better than a vague description, it's still precious little to go on for the millions of New Yorkers who don't happen to know Rahami. Without a face to go with it, it simply encourages people to view any young man who looks like he might have such a name as a potentially deadly terrorist. That's deeply unfair, and it could lead to innocent people getting hurt.

Granted, the alert did not omit the face out of ignorance or malevolence. Due to various technical constraints, its geographic targeting is poor, and it is limited to text-only messages of 90 characters or less. That means the mayor's office couldn't have included the suspect's face if it wanted to — which it surely did, since authorities intentionally spread the image on social media before sending the notification.

That leaves two open questions. First, was the mayor's office right to send this alert, given the constraints and the risk of casting suspicion on innocent people? And second: If the system were to allow authorities to convey greater detail, including links or images, would that be a good thing?

I don't think there are easy answers to either question. But on the first, I lean toward "no," while acknowledging that it's far easier for me to criticize such a decision than it was for them to make it.

True, authorities were under tremendous pressure to do whatever they could to find the suspect before anyone else got hurt. But a system this crude, intrusive, and potentially harmful should not be employed on an ad hoc basis. There should be clear, well-thought-out policies in place to ensure that it's used as carefully, as sparingly, and as effectively as possible. Those policies should be debated in public and codified before the system is used in a new way. And out of that process should come an answer to the second question.

If authorities have the right man, we can all be grateful for their investigative work and thankful that he's no longer in a position to endanger innocent people. Next time, let's hope the authorities are a little more careful that they don't inadvertently do the same.

— Slate.com

Comments

Editorial: NFL calls wise time-out on disciplining protests

The National Football League kept an embarrassing situation from becoming even worse by shelving its new policy clamping down on players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.The league announced late Thursday it would suspend the 2-month old p...
Published: 07/20/18
Get this: Bank of the Ozarks is the country’s largest construction lender

Get this: Bank of the Ozarks is the country’s largest construction lender

This surprised me: Little ole Bank of the Ozarks is the country’s largest construction lender, loaning out more to the industry than financial heavyweight Wells Fargo and Bank of America.Those factoids were part of a lengthy profile of the bank pub...
Published: 07/20/18
Column: The sliming of a Florida river

Column: The sliming of a Florida river

The Great Toxic Slime Outbreak of 2018 has befouled the Caloosahatchee River, the river of my childhood. I needed to see for myself, so I grabbed my cameras and headed south to Fort Myers and Cape Coral. A heartbreaking sight awaited.Gov. Rick Scott ...
Published: 07/20/18
Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is shoring up his final year in office with the proposed city budget he released Thursday. The plan includes no big-ticket items, opting instead to maintain ongoing investments in parks, roads and other basic public services....
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Column: A Tampa Bay approach to make region more resilient against flooding, storms

Column: A Tampa Bay approach to make region more resilient against flooding, storms

It seems like we have been inundated lately with news stories about growing threats to Florida’s economy and quality of life from hazards to our natural environment.Whether it’s pollution, as recently reported in the Tampa Bay Times, in our waterways...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Words on identity politics better late than never

Words on identity politics better late than never

"Democracy demands that we’re able to also get inside the reality of people who are different than us, so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they’ll change ours."That was Barack Obama speaking in South Afric...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18

IRS making ‘dark money’ darker

Under a perverse interpretation of federal law, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations supposedly devoted to "social welfare" can spend large amounts of money to influence elections without publicly disclosing the identities of their donors. But instead ...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
To win, Democrats must talk tougher on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba

To win, Democrats must talk tougher on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba

If Democrats want to win the Hispanic vote in Florida — a key swing state — in upcoming elections, it won’t be enough for them to say that President Trump locks up immigrant infants in cages, sides with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin against U.S. ...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Resign, Mike Pompeo. Resign, John Bolton.

Resign, Mike Pompeo. Resign, John Bolton.

Before the word "resignation" became a euphemism for being fired, it connoted a sense of public integrity and personal honor. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy,William Ruckelshaus, showed both qualities when they resigned from the Nix...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
This week in savings: Best Tampa Bay grocery deals for July 18 - 25

This week in savings: Best Tampa Bay grocery deals for July 18 - 25

It’s a regular occurrence for me: Once a week, I’ll take out all the ads that have been mailed to my house and spread them across my tiny glass table.I grab my scissors for any coupons. Pull up any apps for stores whose ads I didn’t get and laugh at ...
Published: 07/19/18