Crowdsourcing Law Enforcement

I realize there are have been several posts this week regarding the Boston Marathon tragedy, but I am going to add another to the mix. ICT’s and social media use in emergency situations is still a relatively new phenomenon and it merits some analysis.

The rapid pace of the events in the last 24 hours is astounding. Just to recap: Police release photos of bombing suspects (5pm), FBI began receiving possible suspect names (7pm), violence in Watertown (1am).

An article by Time: Swampland, “FBI Releases Photos of Suspects: Let the Crowdsourcing Begin” describes “what might be the most intense act of crowdsourcing in history”. Within moments of releasing the suspect photos, Time says, the FBI received suggestions from Reddit users. This act of ‘crowdsourcing’-utilizing a large group of people to incrementally complete tasks- is a new trend in the online realm. It allows for unprecedented participation in emergency management, disasters, and other areas of ICT4D.

“Internet amateurs were rushing to collect images and data about the attack, with the goal of harnessing their vast numbers to help police zero in on the culprit…Hundreds of commenters weighed in on the possible origins of the pressure-cooker bombs used in the attacks; some scoured eBay for recent purchases of the devices.More analyzed crime-scene photos of possible bomb components.”

However, the article points out that “what some people derisively call Internet vigilantism can also have a dark side.” Users eager for something- justice, answers, safety-rushed to false conclusions. “The photos released by the FBI today do not seem to match the individuals who drew the most interest on Reddit”

Recent crowdsourcing projects have had positive effects in emergency situations, but what about crowdsourced law enforcement? Are we inviting too many contributors, too many voices into the debate? Most users are untrained in forensics and surveillance. Could recruiting amateurs have negative consequences for the law enforcement efforts? Are civilians better off feeling useful and valued in an emergency situation, or is this publicity escalating the violence and fear? I think this event will serve as a precedent for future crowdsourcing, and will bring up important questions of  citizen participation in law enforcement.
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