FCC beefs up emergency cellphone alerts

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NEW YORK — The federal government is beefing up emergency cellphone alerts like the one used in New York to advertise a search for a bombing suspect earlier in September.

The Federal Communications Commission approved a measure Thursday that will let messages be up to four times longer than the current 90-character limit.

Cellphone companies will have to support Spanish messages under the new rules. The changes will also let officials target messages more narrowly and include links in messages.

The jarring alert sent out on Sept. 19 appears to mark the first time that law enforcement officials have used this approach to notify New Yorkers about a wanted suspect on a mass scale, according to Eric Phillips, press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The New York alert had an awkward phrasing, "See media for pic," rather than a link to bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami's photo.

As a result, the FCC now says it's seeking comments on how to attach photos inside actual alerts themselves.

An emergency notification was sent to people's cellphones on Sept. 19, 2016, in the FBI's search for Ahmad Khan Rahami.

An emergency notification was sent to people's cellphones on Sept. 19, 2016, in the FBI's search for Ahmad Khan Rahami.

James O'Neill, New York City's police commissioner, praised the emergency alert system as the "future" during the press conference.

"I think the alerts system is very helpful to the police department and the FBI. It gets everyone involved," O'Neill said. "If we can get everyone in the city engaged to help us keep it safe, this is the future."

Representatives from AT&T and Verizon said the alert was sent through the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which is used to send geographically targeted notifications to mobile phones about safety threats and abducted children.

While Monday's alert was intended to help authorities conduct their investigation, some criticized it on social media.

"Great way to terrorize a bus full of schoolkids is having all their parents' phones blare a scary alarm they can't do anything about," Anil Dash, an influential tech writer and entrepreneur, posted on Twitter.

"Is there evidence that low-information untargeted push notifications help with any kind of crime?" he added. "Seems they're more optimized for panic."

Three hours after the emergency alert, Rahami was said to be in policy custody.

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