For several hours each year on the third Monday of April, the 600 block of Boylston Street in Boston is the most surveilled place on Earth. Television crews, news and commercial photographers, Web videographers, friends, family, tourists -- and, not incidentally, law enforcement -- all have their electronic eyes trained on the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
This partly explains the whiplash speed of the investigation into this week’s bombings. With so much information, a break in the case was inevitable. So were missteps. That’s what happens when you crowdsource a manhunt.
It’s pointless to debate whether this is a good or bad development. The technology that produces this information, not to mention the humans who use it, is here to stay. The question is how best to get them to work together.
Consider: One of the breaks in the case came when Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombing, gave an interview to police. “Bag, saw the guy, looked right at me,” he scrawled on a piece of paper because painkillers made it difficult for him to speak.
Using details from Bauman and other eyewitnesses, the FBI then asked for the public’s help. The bureau has been issuing “Most Wanted” posters for almost a century. This week it issued a poster, 16 photos and a 30-second video, all of which were disseminated far beyond the local post office. The manhunt that followed was one of the most intense and surreal in U.S. history.
As usual, there were false leads -- and they spread with unusual speed. (Thank you, Twitter and Facebook.) But once millions of websites and television screens showed the photos of the suspects, it was only a matter of time before the wisdom of the crowd positively identified them. Their apparent crime spree that night might not have happened otherwise, and they might have had enough time to flee.
Which is sort of the point: In police work -- as in politics, sports, finance, journalism and just about every other field -- eventually a human being is necessary to make sense of all this information.
As much as it may seem otherwise, technology isn’t a disembodied force over which we have no control, like the weather. Digital technology may be binary, but the issues it raises are not. Closed-circuit televisions and webcams, for example, may enable both better law enforcement and more criminal behavior. They will probably enhance security as well as violate privacy. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
The answers to such questions are almost entirely situational. No one can plausibly argue that CCTVs weren’t useful this week in Boston; one from a department store provided the FBI with crucial video of a man dropping a suspicious backpack on Monday.
The more general question, about the role of surveillance in an open society, is harder. New York City has 82 cameras in Times Square alone. Who is permitted to view that video, and when? For what purpose?
Consensus, like consensus on the weather, probably isn’t possible. In the U.K., for example, there are almost 2 million CCTVs, public and private; “video grabs” of suspects and crimes are routinely provided to the news media. The public appears to have grown accustomed to them, though they aren’t universally popular. The debate, in the U.K. as elsewhere, is whether increased surveillance brings about safer streets, and if so whether it is a price worth paying.
Our guess is that Americans will soon engage in a similar debate. But remember that surveillance is no longer simply a government or corporate enterprise: The cameras are us. Armed with our phones, we are the lens, a nation of eyewitnesses aided by technology and connected by an electronic web.
“Everyone is watching.” This is what made the Boston Marathon such a tempting target in the first place. It’s also what may bring the perpetrators to justice.
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