FBI's scrutiny of Boston video walks a privacy-security tightrope

In the aftermath of the deadly Boston Marathon bombings, police and the FBI asked the public to hand over footage and pictures they may have snapped that day. But the crowdsourcing of citizen data, even for counterterrorism, could strike a nerve with some civil-liberties advocates, experts say.

As was expected during one of Boston's biggest days on Monday, the presence of media cameras and smartphone-wielding spectators at the Marathon's finish line was so common as to almost seem frivolous.

But after two bombs ripped through the crowds, killing three people and wounding at least 170 more, those photos and shaky videos, reportedly combined with surveillance footage from a nearby department store, have likely served a pivotal purpose in the investigation. Several media outlets reported Wednesday that a suspect may have been identified from surveillance video taken at a Lord & Taylor store between the two bomb blasts. And authorities have an image of a possible suspect carrying, and perhaps dropping, a black bag at the second bombing scene on Boylston Street, according to Boston.com.

Boston bombings investigated on social sites

Boston bombings investigated on social sites
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The FBI and Boston police asked citizens to come forward with their recordings from that afternoon to help officials piece together events leading up to the devastating attack.

What that means, privacy experts say, is that authorities will once again be carefully weighing national security interests against civil liberty concerns. It's a sensitive balance, says Brian Pascal, a lawyer with Stanford's Center for Internet and Society.

"This is complicated. I don't think it's correct to always elaborate about when is privacy 'less important' when we're dealing with counterterrorism?" he said. "It's not like we say, 'This is so bad, let's start killing privacy'; it's more that we've established what we care about, and let's try to operate in those boundaries."

Already, hard-line privacy advocates and libertarians have voiced fears that a government response to the Boston tragedy will erode privacy and rights. On Twitter, some alluded to the foreseeable passage of "a new Patriot Act," referring to the controversial antiterrorism legislation introduced in 2001.

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That isn't so far-fetched, according to Justin Brookman, the consumer privacy director for the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology.

"One thing we're concerned about is passing a law to require a communications mechanism that would allow the government to backdoor wiretap. That would be a concern," said Brookman.

"Someone could definitely use this tragedy to do that, and I've seen a lot of people saying, 'Hey, we can't let this change our lives.' The whole point of terror is to get these freak-out measures to change your life."

Pascal, who specializes in issues of civil liberties, surveillance and privacy, said it's important to note that the FBI was so far only requesting that the public share their personal videos and pictures with the bureau.

"We're right in the wake of the tragedy and nobody's asking Instagram to turn over every single photo that's geo-tagged," Pascal said.

'WHY WOULDN'T YOU?'

Unlike the debate over domestic use of surveillance drones over civilian skies, in the Boston situation authorities were only seeking permission to scrutinize footage if the person who recorded it was willing to hand it over.

"If you were the police and you have the data and the bandwidth to crunch this stuff, it's hard to say why wouldn't you? Police want to solve a crime; there's nothing creepy or nefarious about it," Pascal said, likening the FBI's pleas for crowdsourced media to phoning an anonymous tip line.

Still, a larger question deals with data retention. Pascal said it's worth considering what happens to user-submitted media once it's in the hands of investigators.

"How long does someone hang on to this information for? And what will it be used for?" he said.

The possibility of secondary usage of that data is worrying, Brookman added.

"If they keep it around forever, will they go pouring through it and see if somebody is smoking marijuana on the corner? Or jaywalking?" he said. "Here we have a focused investigation, but we have a pretty aggressively written criminal code in this country where a lot of other things we do could be illegal."

While technological solutions do exist to limit access to databases, it's up to law enforcement officials to decide whether user-submitted videos or photos that have not yielded evidence for the Boston bombings should be purged from the system.

Otherwise, it's possible that very private moments recorded in a public space by a stranger could be recirculated in an unwanted way, said Chris Parsons, an Internet privacy expert who is researching how social media is used by Canadian law enforcement officials for investigations.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

When the explosions first happened, Parsons said, there was an understandable reason for some locals, as well as victims, not to want to have to see certain images rebroadcasted. "Seeing them at such a private time, even though it's in public, I mean five years from now, your name could come up in a search and you're seen on the ground with your leg 14 feet away. There's a long-term impact there."

Given the architecture of the Internet, though, it's difficult for information to disappear.

Facebook and Twitter users are publicizing a link to a page on Reddit titled "FindBostonBombers." The forum is entirely dedicated to analyzing all the available photos and videos for clues. Tellingly, a discretionary message warns users not to post personal information or names of any people who may be captured in the images.

While Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in charge in Boston, pledged at a news conference to "go to the ends of the Earth to identify the subject or subjects who are responsible for this despicable crime," there's no easy answer as to how far is too far to venture to bring terrorists to justice.

It's perhaps tempting for lawmakers to make a case for turning Boston into a "surveillance state" like London, one of the most surveilled cities in the world. But the prospect of false leads and the disruptive power of government invading citizens' lives makes that a tough tradeoff, Brookman says.

"We have all of the potential for people to kind of monitor everything we do," he said. "Here, we see an example of definite benefits of being recorded. The downside is: What if you're aware that you're being watched all the time — and is that necessarily good for society?"

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