The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Limitations of Crowdsourced Intelligence

In the wake of the horrific bombings at this week’s Boston Marathon, a complex web of agencies has been furiously searching for suspects. Intelligence analysis is already a challenge, and attempting to identify suspects at a massively popular public event is even more difficult. Eager to scoop this major story, news outlets have repeatedly “broke” pieces on suspects only to retract them quickly. The paucity of information has been exacerbated by dubious crowd-based efforts to aid the search.

Popular news aggregator Reddit quickly created a subReddit entitled “FindBostonBombers,” inviting community members to share information and photos of the scene before, during and after the explosions. While the forum contains multiple disclaimers discouraging racism and posting of personal information, the limitations of this type of analysis quickly became apparent. These well-intentioned efforts have led to multiple false positives, and major outlets who eagerly seized the opportunity to beat the rush have been forced to back off: the “person of interest” was in fact a local high school student.

Of course, investigations are rarely a straight line. It’s not uncommon for someone to be identified as a ‘person of interest’ and later cleared after better information becomes available. But the implications are very different when this takes place within law enforcement. The process of being cleared of suspicion may be stressful but there will usually be some degree of confidentiality. The free flowing and difficult to control nature of the crowd means that inaccurate information can spread rapidly, placing the safety and privacy of innocent people at risk. This highlights the ethical issues and practical problems of crowdsourced intelligence.

Proven crowd platforms were used in the aftermath of the tragedy quite well. The Red Cross’s Safe and Well service and Google’s  Person Finder helped panicked friends and family share information about loved ones as cell networks struggled to meet call demand. As more incidents occur where the crowd is deployed, it will be important to regularly engage in ethical analysis to understand where and how the crowd is most helpful.

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