The Problem With That Cellphone Alert About the Chelsea Bombing Suspect
A few minutes before 8 a.m. Monday, millions of New Yorkers’ phones screeched almost simultaneously. They all received the same notification:
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 Times was told that 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:
First time something like has been done. Important added capacity. pic.twitter.com/9yOLS03JPx— Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) September 19, 2016
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 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. As Vice’s Mark Harris recently reported, the Wireless Emergency Alert system is a blunt instrument. 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. This also explains why the notification failed to explain what Rahami was wanted for, or anything else about him.
That leaves two open questions. First, was the mayor’s office right to send this alert, given the aforementioned 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 in innovative ways 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.
Search Engines Promise to Ban Ads for Sex Determination Services in India
Three major search engines have pledged to block information in India about sex determination services, which the country has outlawed to prevent sex-selective abortions.
Google, Yahoo, and Bing pledged to ban advertisements for these services, the Indian health ministry told the Indian Supreme Court on Monday. The high court was hearing a case against Google India, Yahoo India and Microsoft Corp. that was filed by a prominent Indian activist. The petitioner, George Sabu, a leading advocate fighting against female feticide, argued that search engines were violating Indian law by displaying advertising for sex determination services.
Russia Cracks Down On Porn Sites, Trolls Those Who Complain
Russia has long censored swaths of the internet, including sites that violate a law banning “the illegal production, dissemination and advertisement of pornographic materials and objects.” This week, it blocked access to two of the world’s largest porn sites, Pornhub and YouPorn. BBC News reported the sites “redirect to a message explaining they have been blocked ‘by decision of public authorities.’ ”
The Crazy-Ambitious, Maybe-Impossible Plan to Install Free Wi-Fi Across the European Union
The president of the European Union’s executive branch has a vision: free Wi-Fi across the whole of the EU. During his State of the European Union address this week, European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg announced a plan to install wireless internet in the public spaces of “every European village and every city” by 2020. By 2025, he wants to “fully deploy 5G, the fifth generation of mobile communication systems, across the European Union.”
Twitter Streamed Thursday’s NFL Game and No One Had Anything Bad to Say About It
Nothing went wrong with Twitter’s live stream broadcast of Thursday night’s NFL game in which the New York Jets beat the Buffalo Bills 37-31. But there was nothing really special about it, either.
Google Street View Respects Cow’s Privacy, Blurs Its Face
In the photo, the cow’s face is totally blurred, raising the obvious question: Does this cow look more human than other cows? The cow next to the protected cow did not get the blur treatment, and they both seem to be fully bovine.
Netizen Report: In Cuba, Text Messages With Controversial Content Are Disappearing
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, James Losey, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Journalists in Cuba have evidence that the Cuban government is monitoring and selectively blocking mobile SMS messages based on certain keywords such as “human rights,” “hunger strike,” “plebiscite,” and “state security.” According to a report issued Sept. 3 by journalists Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar, who run the Havana-based media outlet 14ymedio, text messages containing a range of sensitive keywords, along with the names of various high-profile anti-Castro activists, are not reaching their destinations. However, as they explain in a report on 14ymedio, the messages still appear as ‘sent’ on the sender’s telephone.
According to technologist and opposition blogger Eliecer Avila, at least 30 keywords have been identified as triggers for the blocking mechanism. It is not clear how long this has been in place. The journalists have not yet shared a full list of terms tested, nor did they indicate whether they believe the blocking is being targeted to specific users. Sanchez, Escobar, and Avila are all very high-profile opposition voices.
The discovery comes at a moment in which Cuban bloggers and independent journalists are facing increasing scrutiny and, in some cases, public condemnation, by leading government and Cuban communist party officials. Diario de Cuba writer Maykel González Vivero, who is also a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights on the island, was fired from his job with state radio station Radio Sagua two weeks ago for collaborating with “private media.” In late August, the well-established Uruguayan blogger and former BBC journalist Fernando Ravsberg, who has lived in Cuba since the mid-1990s and has a family there, was publicly condemned on television by the vice president of Cuba’s Press Workers’ Union, who she charged with offending the sentiments of “decent Cubans.”
Russian authorities jail Pokémon Go player for offending religious people
Ruslan Sokolovsky was jailed in early September for playing Pokémon Go inside a Russian Orthodox cathedral and posting a video of it on YouTube. Police are investigating the 21-year-old video blogger for committing extremism, offending religious people, and “violating the right to religion in a house of worship.”* If convicted of the charges, he could go to prison for up to five years. The video (now with English subtitles) has garnered more than 1.3 million views on YouTube.
On Sept. 7, Sokolovsky complained that a prison psychiatrist threatened his life in jail, warning that he could be institutionalized “where they don’t let the lawyers in.” Government investigators have also revealed that they discovered a camera-pen at his home—technology that is illegal in Russia. The media is describing the device as a “spy pen,” complementing allegations by pro-government bloggers that Sokolovsky’s atheist activism online and in the media is part of a larger, coordinated campaign by nefarious forces, designed to weaken Russia’s traditional values. He has since been released and placed under house arrest.
Algerian court upholds activist conviction over Charlie Hebdo link
An Algerian appeals court upheld the conviction of activist Slimane Bouhafs, decreasing his jail sentence from five to three years. Bouhafs originally was sentenced to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 Algerian dinars (about $917) for “offending the Prophet” and “denigrating the creed and precepts of Islam” for linking to a cartoon by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed crying.
Web journalist arrested in Venezuela
Chilean-Venezuelan journalist and lawyer Braulio Jatar is being held by Venezuelan authorities on charges of money laundering. Jatar, who is the director of the investigative news site Reporte Confidencial, was detained during a protest in the locality of Villa Rosa that forced President Nicolas Maduro to leave the city. Jatar’s supporters believe his coverage of the protest are the real reason he is in custody.
Another one bites the dust: Saudi Arabia bans LINE messaging app
The Saudi government added LINE to the long list of VOIP services and messaging apps blocked in the country, which includes Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Skype. Responding to the block, Saudi users took to Twitter to protest the government’s strict Internet censorship policies, asking “what’s the point of having Internet?”
Surprise, surprise: New Snowden leaks reveal more mind-blowing surveillance tools
The Intercept released new documents from the Snowden leaks that reveal how the NSA aided “ ‘a significant number of capture-kill operations’ across the Middle East and North Africa, fueled by powerful eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day.”
“High Impact Questions and Opportunities for Online Harassment Research and Action”—Nate Matias, MIT Center for Civic Media
“The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services”—Jonathan Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch
*Correction, Sept. 19, 2016: This post originally misstated that Ruslan Sokolovsk was arrested in early August. He was arrested in early September. The post also misstated that he was still in police custody; he is now under house arrest.
What’s the Best Way to Cover Your Webcam?
This week, FBI Director James Comey reaffirmed a position he’s expressed in the past, claiming that he covers his computer’s camera with tape. “I think people ought to take responsibility for their own safety and security,” Comey proposed at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference, according to the Hill.
Comey’s not alone in that commitment: Mark Zuckerberg supposedly obscures his laptop’s camera as well, and as Will Oremus points out, he’s right to do so. Covering your camera may make you look paranoid, but webcam snooping is very real, especially for powerful figures like Zuckerberg. Back in 2013, Tyler Lopez made just such a case in Future Tense, writing, “almost anyone—from foreign governments to the creepy teenager down the street—could be recording you while you sit at your computer.” The following year, documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicated that the NSA uses plug-ins to hijack cameras, information that surely informs Comey’s own decisions.
Here, however, is where I admit that even knowing all of that, I’ve never covered my own camera. Spurred by Comey’s latest statement, I realized it was time to change my ways. The only question was how. Like Oremus, I hope that computer manufacturers will start adding physical covers to machines, though we shouldn’t expect them to do so any time soon. In the meantime, you can buy physical covers online, sure, but having already delayed too long, I wanted something fast. In an attempt to determine the best option as quickly as possible, I quizzed others at Slate and raided the magazine’s supply closets for materials.
In evaluating my options, I had a few criteria:
- Flexibility: Since I routinely use my computer’s camera for video conferencing, I need an option that I can take off and put back on again without much effort.
- Adhesion: Simply put, I want my covering to stay on, but I also don’t want it to be so sticky that it leaves goo on the lens when I take it off.
- Opacity: I want a cover that will actually block the camera’s functionality.
- Looks: While webcam paranoia is clearly warranted, I’d rather not have a covering that actively broadcasts my fears. It would be nice if it looks cool too.
With those expectations in mind, I’ve rated each of the options below on a scale of one to five shadowy emoji silhouettes.
Post-It Notes: In the past, I've noticed that a few of my colleagues simply employ a torn-off fragment of a post-it notes. My own testing indicated that this option was highly contingent on the hue of the paper itself, since lighter shades (including the common yellow varietal) may let enough light through to capture the hint of an image. This option also inclines toward the ugly, since the tattered squares stand out on my computer’s frame. Finally, the adhesive on the notes I tested seems weak enough that it seems as if it would come off easily during ordinary usage of my machine.
Duct tape: Short of permanently destroying your camera, this may be the most brutally effective method. My testing suggested that nothing’s going to get through, but its pragmatic qualities are arguably surpassed by its ugliness. In that regard, it’s probably the closest equivalent to a tinfoil hat on this list. Further, one Slatester reported that it left a sticky residue on her camera at first, though that effect faded in time, even as the tape itself remained adhesive.
Painter’s tape: Designed to go on even and come off clean, painter’s tape—Oremus’ favored option—just edges out duct tape. It may, however, be harder to find. What’s more, the classic blue shade may be even more unpleasantly inelegant atop monitors.
Cute cat stickers: One Slate editor protects herself with adorable stickers that depict kittens dressed up in sushi costumes. Just the right size and featuring a pull tab on top that makes removal and reattachment a cinch, they seem ideally designed for this purpose. Indeed, she’s been pulling hers on and off for months, and it still hasn’t lost its stickiness. She offered me one to try (I chose a puffy-faced kitten adorned with spicy tuna sashimi). Alas, the sticker I tried was sufficiently translucent that my camera was still able to capture a phantasmatic image of me (see below). My editor's slightly darker sticker seems to work a bit better, and even the one I chose would likely be enough to make any images pulled from my camera relatively useless. It’s a charming method, then, but maybe not the most secure if you really want to prevent hackers from checking in on you. There are plenty of other similar stickers available online, but be sure you know what you’re getting into.
Invisible tape: While you would think that a translucent barrier would be ineffective, the invisible tape I put over my computer’s camera actually obscured the resulting image better than the more colorful sticker I tried, though a faint outline was still visible. Significantly, the tape also largely disappeared against my computer’s frame, while still making it easy to tell when the camera’s activity light was on, making it an ideal option for paranoiacs who don’t want to publicize their paranoia, but do want to know when they should be paranoid. If anything, though, it was so hard to see that I worry I might forget it was there, which could be a problem when I actually need to use the camera. And when I did try to take it off, I found that it was difficult to remove: By the time I had gotten it off, I had destroyed it so thoroughly that it was unusable.
Washi tape: Recommended by Slate’s resident stationery-head June Thomas, washi tape is typically used to decorate envelopes, journals, and other paper products. Like painter’s tape, it peels off easily, but unlike that more industrial material, it comes in a wide array of shades, prints, and other colorful designs. As such, it may be an ideal—even attractive—option for those who want to turn cybersecurity into an opportunity for stylish self-expression. Thomas’ chosen tape also features a print that helpfully reminds us why we’re doing this in the first place.
Happy 30th Birthday to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—Perhaps the Worst Law in Technology
The 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act remains one of the most controversial federal tech-regulating laws on the books. The “anti-hacking” measure was meant to protect against a range of online crimes, but 30 years later there is still little consensus about what a computer crime is, and what the law actually covers. The drafting was so imprecise, it’s conceivable we are all breaking the law all the time. Courts across the country have interpreted the CFAA in a variety of contradictory ways. Meanwhile, high-profile examples of its enforcement, such as the case against Aaron Swartz for downloading millions of academic articles, have prompted the passage of new state laws as well as proposed changes to the CFAA itself. An upgrade is sorely needed.
On Thursday, Sept. 29, Future Tense and New America’s Open Technology Institute will host a lunchtime conversation in Washington, D.C., on the legacy and future of the law—and what lessons it offers for those crafting tech-related legislation. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Fred C. Stevenson research professor of law, George Washington University
Author, The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet
Assistant professor of public policy, Rochester Institute of Technology
Faculty associate, Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society
Fellow, New America Cybersecurity Initiative
Policy counsel and government affairs lead, New America’s Open Technology Institute
Drone Racing Is Now on ESPN. Will People Watch?
Drones are going mainstream: The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that by the end of 2016, people will own more than 2.5 million in the United States alone. But competitive drone-ing is newer still, and televised drone sports are practically uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. That will change Thursday night when the first of a 10-episode season featuring the Drone Racing League airs on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. Eastern.