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 last week’s bombings. With so much information, a break in the case was inevitable. So were missteps.
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 manhunt that followed was one of the most intense and surreal in U.S. history.
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.
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?
“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.
Bloomberg News (April 22)