“Crowdsourcing” is a phenomenon that has been growing in many industries as more people use the Internet to extract resources from large groups, and now some are wondering if criminal investigations are the next area to benefit from the practice.
The hunt and subsequent capture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which involved combining input from Boston citizens with information collected from forensic investigators, has led many to question the usefulness of somehow shaping the power of the Internet into a tool to fight crime.
Reddit, a powerful kind of news aggregator that operates in real time thanks to followers and participants, received both praise and criticism for its treatment of the news during Boston’s manhunt. So-called “redditors” created a lot of false leads, which were then trumpeted by major news outlets, and many innocent people were accused of being suspects. On the other hand, redditors also did an admirable job of helping people find loved ones, locate hospitals or get food, demonstrating the power could also be used for good.
In a more positive example of crowdsourcing, images provided by thousands of people at the scene via their smartphones helped investigators eliminate leads and better narrow their search in the right areas. This type of help, a more focused kind of crowdsourcing that allowed law enforcement to decide relevance on an image-by-image basis, is decidedly different than the Reddit approach and could become a go-to source for investigators in the future.
The question both types of crowdsourcing raises, is whether Americans are helping to create their own surveillance state by becoming the eyes and ears of a criminal investigation. Some argue the rise of the surveillance state will not keep bad people from doing bad things and will only act to infringe upon the privacy of the innocent. Others argue, however, that society has arrived at a point where real-time surveillance is just a matter of fact rather than an option that can somehow be debated away.