Like it or not, the hunt for the alleged Boston Bomber reveals how we've all become implicit in an all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance network.
When Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested by police last Friday, bleeding in a boat parked behind a house in Watertown, it was the culmination of a short but intense effort made possible through the wide mesh of technology that surrounds us.
A helicopter equipped with an infrared camera was sent over the residence to search for heat signatures inside the boat, pictures of which were later released by police over Twitter.
As police assembled in the street in front of the house, a PackBot was sent to inspect Tsarnaev's car. The security robot, manufactured by Massachusetts-based iRobot, uses a tread-mounted camera and mechanical arm, designed to provide a safe way to inspect uneven areas with suspected explosives.
Surveillance cameras were once privileged tools, but the rapid expansion of mobile data networks, computer phones, and camera technology has made everyone a potential node in an improvisatory surveillance network.
Next, a large armored vehicle with an even longer robotic arm mounted to its hood was driven into the backyard to remove the boat's tarp, exposing the wounded Tsarnaev. Police used a megaphone in an attempt to order the suspect out of the boat but found him unresponsive. Officers then tossed several stun grenades, which temporarily blind a person by activating all of the eye's photoreceptors for a few seconds, and then rushed in to arrest him.
Before the point of apprehension, the manhunt for the bombing suspects had been driven by computers, with police first settling on suspects using security camera footage from a Lord & Taylor building. Police also requested anyone present at the race to turn over photos and videos to help search for suspects, creating a massive influx of new data that needed to be parsed and cross-checked. The reliance on community data led to a parallel vigilante search for the suspects, spearheaded by anonymous sleuths on Reddit, who hastily and erroneously accused two men ahead of the police.
Internet vigilantism has become a common response to the slow and often inefficient approach to law enforcement in recent years, from high-profile crusaders like Julian Assange to the efforts of Anonymous in pushing police to reopen their investigations in the rape and suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons. The means do not always match the most combat-ready equipment available to the police—especially those armor-plated robotics meant to deal with bombed environments. And while expensive infrared cameras are still beyond impulse-buy territory, the Apple Store is already stocking a consumer drone that can be controlled by iPad or iPhone and which records photos and videos while in flight.
As the technology that law enforcement relies on to drive their own investigations has increased in sophistication, it has also become more inexpensive and easily accessible to the public. Surveillance cameras were once privileged tools, but the rapid expansion of mobile data networks, computer phones, and camera technology has made everyone a potential node in an improvisatory surveillance network.
In a case as horrific as the marathon bombing, participation in this network is an act of communal good faith as the pure villainy of the act dispels any misgivings about opening one's personal data up to the government. But it also reveals how much the average person has the capacity to act as police. From spy cams to keystroke loggers, people are not just becoming spies, but cops. The pathos of the investigator seeps through in everything from the appearance of found-footage cinema like Paranormal Activity to the interminable obsession with procedural dramas like Law & Order and CSI.
For decades, the reputation of the police has been degraded, from the rise of the Black Panthers and community policing movements of the ’70s to the stories of excessive police force during the Occupy protests. In many cases, it has become common for people to feel the need to police the cops as a form of self-defense, often using the same surveillance technologies the police call on the community to use after mass attacks, where the public and the police determine they both have a common enemy. These special cases make it seem as if we’re united for a few days, briefly forgetting all the other times we have to rely on our own wits and equipment to protect ourselves.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.