In the past, your phone has likely emitted a hideously blaring, horn-like sound to indicate you were receiving a flash-flood warning from the national emergency alert system or an Amber Alert for an abducted child — emergencies everyone should be alerted to. Yesterday, phones in New York City rang with that same sound, but with an unfamiliar, alarming message about the suspect wanted for Saturday's bombing.
According to The New York Times, this alert — a digital wanted poster of sorts — was the first of its kind. The alert was part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which, the Department of Homeland Security says, "are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through your mobile carrier."
These kinds of alerts require the support of your smartphone's operating system and your carrier. All iOS phones have built-in support, but you can choose to turn the alerts on or off simply by going to your Settings and scrolling down to the bottom of the Notifications tab.
The only notifications that can't be turned off are presidential alerts. According to CNN, yesterday's alert went out to everyone, including those who didn't have notifications turned on. But was it a real emergency? Should, what The New York Times has termed a "wanted" alert, be issued to phones at all?
Some took to Twitter saying that the message ignited unnecessary panic. Others noted that the inclusion of the suspect's name — but not his photo — introduced racial profiling and put anyone of a similar ethnic background in danger. Both are fair points.
But it's also worth noting that smartphones are far and away the primary source of how we communicate today. Local news viewership has dropped substantially (when was the last time you turned on the 7 a.m. broadcast?) and texting is the 21st century word of mouth. So, how else will people know about a pressing issue of national security?
Nevertheless, there is a "cry wolf" risk involved. "When used sparingly — when there is a clear and present threat to the life of a known victim — they help engage the public into a 'heads up' or 'see something, say something' mindset," says security consultant Spencer Coursen. "What we don't want is for them to become the everyday car alarm blaring from a random city street, heard but discarded, or just one more push notification that is seen but too easily deemed irrelevant."
Coursen believes that ultimately, we'll see more options around turning on and off certain kinds of alerts, especially as the Wireless Emergency Alerts system broadens the types of alerts it pushes to our phones.
Yesterday's alert ignited a call to action that worked — the suspect was apprehended. But it could have been handled better. In issues that concern national and international security, push notifications are a reasonable and necessary way to ensure citizens are informed. But those notifications need to follow parameters to ensure that they are not sent too early in an investigation — or too often — and should make an effort to include a photo, in addition to text. Otherwise, these calls to action could elevate situations to even more dangerous proportions and, scariest of all, create a culture of fear.