After Boston Bombing, Everyone Is Being Watched--and Everyone is Watching

By monitoring social media and using crowd-sourced evidence, authorities have turned the public into both suspects and investigators.

Twitter was quick to blast the changes to Google's search engine, arguing that real-time "tweets" with dramatic ramifications will sink deeper on results pages.

FBI special agent and head of the bureau’s Boston office Richard DesLauriers has been running an crowd-sourced campaign  for information about suspects in the Boston marathon bombing that left three dead and more than 170 wounded. So far, it appears to be working--but it also may herald in an unexpected end to privacy and civil liberties in the U.S.

Let's take a look at the strategy, thus far.

The investigator released photos and videos of the two men authorities identified as suspects and created a website where tipsters and witnesses could come forward with pertinent information about the attack.

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At a press conference yesterday, DesLauriers said the release of photographs and videos showing the bombers’ clothes, baseball hats, and faces could pull clues from anyone -- in the United States or internationally -- who had ever seen or known the suspects.

“With the media’s help, in an instant, these images will be delivered directly into the hands of millions around the world,” DesLauriers said.

And indeed they were. By the time the new information prompted a shootout in a Boston suburb that left one suspect dead, DesLauriers had already received more than 2,000 tips.

At the same time that the FBI was pouring over images and videos from the bombings, so too were internet users. On Reddit and 4Chan, vigilante investigators pointed out in photos and videos people and behavior they deemed suspicious. Claiming a man’s backpack was shaped as if it might have a pressure cooker in it, Reddit users identified the same wrong ‘suspect’ the New York Post pictured on its front page yesterday. The man, Salah Barhoun, was indeed not being sought by police. He was simply an innocent teenager.

“It’s the worst feeling that I can possibly feel,” Barhoun told ABC News, “I’m only 17.”

The FBI’s investigation helped to clear the name of the high schooler. But he remains worried that his life will be forever stained by those who remember that NY Post and much of the internet portrayed him as a terrorist.

While some people have standards for the kind of information they will post to Facebook, we have yet to establish a precedent for how authorities -- and average civilians -- may use social media to identify suspects in crimes. With spying as easy as the click of a mouse, privacy, like hand-written letters, becomes a thing of the past. At the same time, questions about how we can maintain security and safety have largely gone unadressed.

Is there a time and place for police work, or is everything on the internet free reign? For example, should the FBI be allowed to scour through the Facebook and twitter profiles of every person they identified at the Boston marathon? Or, to push the question even further, should NYPD officers monitor Facebook pages to identify “at-risk” youths before they have committed crimes?

Whether internet vigilantes or trained investigators are using social media for crime analysis, the privacy of the people on the other end is often pushed aside in the name of safety. If this phenomenon continues un-checked, the impact on civil liberties could be as swift and severe as the false reports that followed the attack.

Kristen Gwynne is an editor at The Influence. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, VICE and Follow her on Twitter @kristengwynne.