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Wireless Emergency Alert Implicitly Encourages NYC Citizens to Racially Profile Their Neighbors

Yo, what were you thinking?

In the early hours of the morning today, New Yorkers woke up to an emergency alert asking them to be on the lookout for a 28-year-old man named Ahmad Khan Rahami. Given the limitations of the cell phone emergency alert system, information was kept brief and text-only. No photo, reason, or other information was given aside from a name, age, and gender. People looking for those details were informed in the same alert that they should “See media for pic.” In other words, this alert essentially encouraged citizens of New York to begin racially profiling people who look like they might have that name. Can you see the problem with that?

Rahami was wanted for his suspected involvement with an explosion in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, which injured 29 people. Additional explosive devices were found, after which the manhunt for Rahami began, ending with his arrest in New Jersey, hours after this alert went out.

The use of this alert system to find people is hardly unprecedented; it’s the go-to for Amber Alerts, which you’ve likely heard before coming from your phone. The problem with this alert specifically lies not so much in its use, but rather in how it was packaged and presented.

Consider: It’s a well-known fact that anti-Middle Eastern, anti-Muslim sentiment tends to foment shortly after events like these, with people often violently lashing out and attacking people on the basis of just looking like they might be Muslim. By sending out an alert like this, which lacks critical context and information, people are left with only their imagination and previous biases to judge who “Ahmad Khan Rahami” might be. In a single moment, suddenly everybody who appears to be Muslim and/or Middle Eastern becomes a suspect.

Now can you see the problem with the alert?

There is also a past precedent for manhunts leading citizens to find the wrong target, as happened to Sunil Tripathi, who got falsely accused of having been involved in the Boston Marathon bombings back in 2013. Misinformation and panic can spread quickly in the aftermath of an event like this, and authorities have a responsibility to be very careful about how they disseminate information about potential suspects.

Whoever was in charge of drafting and sending out the alert needs to understand the kind of power such a system has over the public. Deputizing an entire city to essentially profile their neighbors and strangers is just straight up wrong, regardless of the end towards which you’re working. It’s one thing to have profiling and prejudice spread amongst a people by the people themselves, but it’s a completely different thing entirely when such behaviors are encouraged and enabled by the institutions and people in charge.

It’s unclear whether the alert assisted the police in apprehending Rahami, or even what kind of results it turned up (if any at all). What is clear, however, is that either the technology around emergency alerts or the way in which they’re presented needs to change, lest a similar one result in spurring on even more anti-Muslim or anti-Middle Eastern sentiment.

(via Select All, featured image via Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock)

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.