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Chris April 20, 2013

Abraham Zapruder was ahead of his time. Nearly fifty years ago the Dallas clothing manufacturer fired up his Bell & Howell 8mm camera to make a home movie of Pres. Kennedy and his motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza. He would up recording the most famous 26.6 seconds of footage in history. 

The Boston area, New England and much of the country spent five day days in terror and confusion as everyone searched for whoever was responsible for bombing the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday. By everyone I mean literally everyone. Law enforcement personnel requested and received a monstrous amount of photographic and video data from anyone and everyone who had it. Nowadays with nearly every person carrying a cell phone with a camera and many more using actual digital cameras, which can take a lot more pictures than film, there was plenty to look at. There was also surveillance tape from the businesses, most notably a Lord & Taylor store which turned out to be the most significant footage leading to the identification and capture of the suspects.

One point that had been reverberating throughout the week is that in this day and age, with the prevalence of recording technology, we are constantly under surveillance even without knowing it. Surveillance not by Big Brother but all of our brothers, sisters and cousins. We are all watching one another. Not that there are many complaints–as I wrote last week in my social media and evidence post, people freely divulge personal information and photos over the Internet.

Fears, of surveillance at least, may be exaggerated. Sure there were many pictures being taken at site of the bombing, but that should be expected at the finish line of a top sporting event. Even at the 1963 Marathon there were people with Instamatics and other cameras. There was probably even a Boston Zapruder (named Sully) with a home movie camera. Additionally, being in a public place, you are always subject to the observation of many people even without being recorded and preserved on film and SD cards. Technology just preserves it. Chris Hayes asked on his show in the middle of the week, what if one of the pictures sent to the FBI revealed someone smoking a joint? Although that wouldn’t law enforcement’s priority (ignore that criminal classification of marijuana for a minute), it is true that the police could go after the Boston joint smoker with that evidence. I doubt many people would be motivated to identify him or her but it’s possible and would be legal because there isn’t any Fourth Amendment protection for things exposed to public view.

What we have to worry about isn’t the taking of pictures (most of the time no one is taking pictures of your commute to work or buying a hot dog anyway) but the posting and interpretation of that data. Because computers and Internet are every bit as prevalent and accessible as cell phones (often with their own Internet), there was a huge amount of amateur sleuthing making the rounds online. Users of Reddit, 4Chan and other online communities analyzed uploaded pictures in efforts to help find the bombing suspects. There was also, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation making the rounds, some of which was picked up by the news media. A gossip rag in New York ran a picture on its front page of the wrong guys. Fortunately they weren’t harmed. But what if they were? There’d be another tragedy.

Cyber sleuthing could very easily have led to a cyber (and perhaps an actual) lynching. Remember Richard Jewell? He was the former security guard who became a media suspect of the 1996 Olymmpics bombing. He was exonerated but had his life ruined. Now, in addition to the technology we have available to gather information, technology allows news to travel faster. It also allows gossip and incorrect information to travel faster as we saw quite a few times this week. We should all be grateful that the FBI and local police conducted a solid investigation that will place a suspect into our criminal justice system. We should also be be grateful that vigilantes, relying misinformation, didn’t cause any further injustice.

We are all fortunate that we have technology that can protect us and our rights. We must also however be mindful that the same technology can destroy us. I expect new life to be breathed into our common law torts that deal with privacy and defamation. Until then, let’s enjoy the relief. The Sox, Bruins and Celtics are all in action today.

Stay #BostonStrong, my friends.

Hats off to the auteur who captured Big Papi speaking freely. Why the news can show human carnage on a city street while “This is our fucking city” is bleeped out…that’s a post for another day. This is our country.