Sunday, April 21, 2013

Terrorism in the Digital Age - Lessons from Boston

Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Like everyone else, I've been riveted to the news coming out of Boston for the past week.  It's hard to understand why anyone would have done such a thing.  It's equally confusing why they thought they could have gotten away with it, because with each day technology is transforming the world we live in.

We're no longer reliant on CNN or other news agencies to provide our continuous news feed; the  Internet and other digital media is where people go to find information now.  This is a double-edged sword: on one hand the amount of instantaneous information being relayed has increased exponentially while on the other hand the validity of the content should be viewed with a critical eye.  Reddit, Twitter, and other online sites have played a significant role in the national discussion on the Boston Marathon bombings and the search for the perpetrators.  Forget about nightly or even hourly updates, most people are looking minute by minute for accurate information.  This must put a considerable strain on news services and other credible sources of information with detrimental effects.

I won't attempt to comprehend the bombers' minds but if escape was one of their goals they made a serious miscalculation.  Performing their deeds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, with video and so many cameras present, made their discovery just a matter of time.  I'm curious to learn just how many images were submitted and reviewed by the FBI; it must be a staggering number.  It occurred to me early in the week how online crowdsourcing could be used to review the images in a more expedient manner.  This seems like a good idea until you see how different Reddit threads became what Alex Hern at NewStatesman describes as "a racist Where's Waldo?"  Several individuals became prime suspects in the cyber world followed by several news organizations trying to play catch-up by posting their faces on page 1.  It would seem that eventually even the FBI decided the eyes of the multitude might do more good than harm in their investigation.  After posting video of the suspects and the relevant time stamp, some of the best images were discovered.

Security cameras from several establishments on Boylston Street provided additional images and  left some to call for an increased amount of video surveillance in America's cities.  Closed-circuit television has been used extensively in London for years with little effect, but what I find puzzling is how Americans could lobby for more CCTV surveillance when it can't even enact mandatory gun registration.  CCTV rings of Big Brother and seems to go against an American sense of freedom, or does it?  I think this is an interesting discussion: do you have a right of privacy in a public place?  People are constantly setting off alarms over Google's privacy issues, even its Google Glass before they are released.  We can all anticipate some level of surveillance within business buildings or even online, but what about in the neighborhood park?  As I mentioned in a previous post on Drones, privacy issues are going to be tested in the 21st Century.  How do you feel about this?

As the manhunt reached its peak, we found that technology once again didn't disappoint us.  Police tracked the fleeing suspects using the carjacked victim's cellphone.  News stations used Google Earth views extensively to give us the lay of the land.  While the reporters and TV crews were kept at a safe distance, eyewitnesses in Watertown began Tweeting us updates on the action.  Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) tweeted as law enforcement engaged the suspects outside his window and did a TV interview during the lockdown via Skype where he was able to point out the bullet holes in his walls.  Watertown was overwhelmed with boots on the ground but at the climax it was thermal imaging equipment and a police robot that provided essential functions that made sure all those boots got home safe.

So now that it seems this crisis has reached its conclusion, we'd be wise to contemplate on how technology is transforming the world we live in.  Technology contributed greatly to the bombing investigation but it also gave us a view of the ethical and societal issues we'll be facing in the digital age.  Laying in hospitals across Boston, the survivors of that terrible day are the ones who need it most of all now.

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