Racial Profiling by the Government Sent Right to Your Cell-Phone? How can this be Stopped?

In the new era of technology, cellphones have become an indispensable part of human daily activity. With this, the government has implemented new methods to communicate with citizens in events of emergencies.1 Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) were implemented pursuant to the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act2 that allow “national, state, or local governments [to] send alerts regarding public safety emergencies.”3 These alerts are free, and consumers have the option to block these messages through their subscribers with the exception of presidential warnings.4

While WEAs sound like excellent news to society, they are extremely limited.5 WEAs are limited to 90 characters, which is less than the twitter limit for tweets, no pictures are allowed with the text, and no clickable pictures or links can be put on the alerts.6 Essentially, the government has to communicate threats, weather alerts, amber alerts, and other public safety emergencies in less than three lines.7 This can be problematic, especially when names of suspects for both Amber Alerts, or other threats are sent via this method.

The text limit on WEAs can be a forum for explicit racial profiling by the authorities allowed to send said messages. For example, simply by just providing a name that can be related to a certain ethnicity or religion, or skin color descriptions of wanted individuals, this can cause severe impacts on minorities and their relationships within their communities.8 According to The American Psychological Association (APA), research has shown that the effects of racial profiling on minority groups include “post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), perceptions of race-related threats and failure to use available community resources.”9 In addition, the APA’s psychologist have concluded that racial profiling does not only affect the individual, but it “also impacts families, friends, classmates, and neighbours.”10 Allowing the WEAs to continue to send these sorts of alerts to the devices of people nationwide that potentially racially profile a certain minority group “means that the social and economic cost of racial profiling is widespread.”11

In New York, on September 19, 2016 at around 8:30am, every phone that had emergency alerts activated received a WEA that read, “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen.”12 This emergency alert did not contain a picture, a hyperlink, and was also extremely racist.13 It potentially left an open ground for people all over New York City to call 9-1-1 in the event they saw someone that could have relatively looked like they were a Muslim man named “Ahmad.”14

Perhaps WAEs do not violate the law by sending alerts that racially profile, but a proposed solution to this issue could be to amend the WARN Act to explicitly demand that the WAEs include text, hyperlinks, pictures, and more than 90 characters.15 In addition, if the WARN Act provides that WAEs cannot be sent to the mass population if nothing but a description with no picture is available, this could prevent racial profiling’s like the one that occurred in New York September 19, 2016. Finally, if the WARN Act is amended to require the government officials to receive trainings on how appropriate WAEs can be sent without affecting minorities, perhaps WAEs can be more effective.

  1. Bureau of Consumer Affairs and Bureau of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), Federal Communications Commission (Nov. 13, 2015), https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-emergency-alerts-wea.
  2. Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, Pub. L. No. 109-347, § 601, 120 Stat. 1936, 1936 (2006) (codified at 47 U.S.C. §§ 1201-05 (2006)) (directing the FCC to develop program for emergency alert).
  3. Supra, note 1
  4. Supra, note 1
  5. Mark Harris, Why Homeland Security Unleashed an ‘Alien Virus’ on Silicon Valley, Motherboard (Aug. 23, 2016), https://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-homeland-security-unleashed-an-alien-virus-on-silicon-valley.
  6. Id.
  7. See Brian Feldman, New Yorkers Just Received a Terrible Emergency Alert, New York Magazine, (Sept. 19, 2016), http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/new-yorkers-just-received-a-terrible-emergency-alert.html.
  8. Unnamed Author, “The Effects of Racial Profiling,” Ontario Human Rights Commission (no date), http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/paying-price-human-cost-racial-profiling/effects-racial-profiling.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Supra, note 7
  13. Id.
  14. See Feldman, New York Magazine.
  15. See WARN Act, 47 USCS §1201.

Author: Leslie Polanco-Linares

Leslie Polanco-Linares graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2015 and attended Rutgers Law School-Newark to pursue her life long dream of becoming an immigration attorney. Her first year of law school, Leslie was the recipient of the Michael Maggio Immigration Fellowship and the Marsha Wenk Fellowship at Rutgers Law School. Throughout her first 1L Sumer, Leslie interned for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York in Albany, New York as a legal fellow in the immigration project. There, she worked with incarcerated clients that were not represented for their immigration cases. This upcoming Spring, Leslie is excited to join the ACLU of New Jersey as a legal intern.