Sociology in the News 6 (Surveillance and Crime Control)

Last week, millions of mobile phones across New York City got a text alert. It read

“Wanted: Ahmed Kham Rahami, 28 year old male. See Media for pic, call 9-1-1 if seen”

The message related to a man suspected of planting the previous weekend’s bombs in New York and New Jersey, and he was picked up later that day.

Headline News - Suspected Terrorist Apprehended after the NYPD hijacked the WEA

Headline News – ‘Suspected Terrorist Apprehended after the NYPD hijacked the Wireless Emergency Alert System’

NYPD commissioner James O’Neill said the alert had given the police an edge, and hailed it as ‘the future’.

In most cases the WEA (Wireless Emergency Alerts) text alert system is used to warn people in specific neighbourhoods about dangerous weather or missing children, but this was the first time it had been used to hunt down a suspect for a crime.

The obvious pros of this crime control technique are that it worked – the suspect was apprehended, but there are also several downsides:

  • It could spread unnecessary panic – with the public already on edge about terrorism
  • People in the US are already routinely harassed for just appearing to be Muslim, this just adds to this problem – perpetuating the Muslim terrorist stereotype.
  • If it’s upscaled it could just become ineffective and people ignore such texts due to information overload.

This is a useful example to illustrate how the NYPD have essentially hijacked an emergency alert system and turned it into a technology of surveillance. You could also use it to criticise the theory that synoptic surveillance is mainly used to hold the authorities to account – this is in many ways the opposite of that. 

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