In the message seen below, law enforcement encouraged those in the area to keep an eye out for the alleged (and since charged) bomber. It's hard to argue against a feature like this. It has some real usefulness, and while this particular message wasn't what necessarily helped police nail down the bomber, there's little doubt that these messages could in fact help in such situations.
Emergency alert in New York that just went out to all mobile phones in the city. pic.twitter.com/vGSDiXgOcB— Karsten Aichholz (@KarstenAichholz) September 19, 2016
However, systems like these are open to abuse. Whether it be some unauthorized person who gained access to the system or a disgruntled employee, a mechanism that affects every single person in a given area is ripe for some sadistic fun.
Way back in 2013, citizens of Great Falls, Montana learned this the hard way, as alert messages were sent out to phones warning people of a zombie apocalypse. The message read, "Dead bodies are rising from their graves." While most are going to get a chuckle or shrug it off, let's face it: some people believed it.
To date, these "Wireless Emergency Alerts" have been credited with saving lives, and it's no surprise why. An enormous amount of people own a smartphone, and if everyone receives the same message, it's clearly going to increase the chance of police catching their man (or woman). Some might consider it annoying, nonetheless, since few people enjoy unsolicited messages. However, it's still hard to argue that this is a simple thing that could prove extremely useful to law enforcement.
Still, when that zombie message shot out to Montana residents a few years ago, it highlighted just how sensitive this kind of system is. If these messages are used more frequently, and people begin to rely on them, a fake message could be taken as a real one. While a zombie invasion is going to be scoffed at by most, a severe weather warning might not be. What's worse: what if local media get the message and somehow believe it, and then post news stories based around it?
Clearly, for this kind of system, security defenses need to be treated with the utmost importance. But as we've seen time and time again, stepped up security might not be enough to stop bad actors.