Can Big Brother Protect Us Against Terrorism?

Questioning Surveillance’s Role in a Post-Boston Bombing World

The-tsarnaev-suspects-fbi-photo-release

While the world’s eyes locked on one set of brothers, the conversation surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing quickly shifted to Big Brother, and surveillance’s role in preventing acts of terror. We’re here to parse the opinions, and say why everyone is right — and wrong.

Three days after the Boston bombings, the suspects were identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The ensuing daylong manhunt led to the killing of older brother Tamerlan and the capture of Dzhokhar. The identification and apprehension of the suspects can, in no uncertain terms, be at least partially attributed to the existence of surveillance cameras in Boston, as well as to a network of civilians armed with image- and information-sharing technology.

Once the dust cleared, to use a poorly chosen cliche, debates began raging from across the idealogical spectrum as to what the role of surveillance should be in a post-9/11 world.

Set aside for a moment the ongoing debate over civil liberties in a free society. Instead, consider the argument that because video surveillance failed to stop the attack, it isn’t the answer to ensuring our protection.

In a particularly thoughtful and well-researched piece in The Verge, writer Matt Stroud notes that the greater Boston area had an estimated 500 CCTV cameras in place at the time of the attack.  Stroud goes on to argue that because of the volume of data being collected, the system is simply too unwieldy to actually prevent crime. Instead, the camera network acts as more of a historical document, providing slowly gathered, after-the-fact information which may help apprehend perpetrators, but inherently doesn’t deter criminal activity.

“We need to think about the purpose of these cameras,” [said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston]. “If the purpose is to have a camera at an ATM to find people who are stealing, that’s one thing. But putting everyone into a database or recording every moment of every day from more than 500 cameras, the systems become overwhelmed.”

As a counterpoint, an equally emphatic and convincing argument from Slate‘s Farhad Manjoo claims that without surveillance, the suspects could still be at large. Manjoo also argues that despite the trove of smartphone pictures and video, at the end of the day, the most clear and reliable images were those recorded by CCTV cameras. He goes on to theorize that while the current surveillance system didn’t prevent the crime, more surveillance may have.

“I can’t tell you if the marathon bombing would have been prevented if Boston had a larger network of cameras being monitored by software or human operators,” he writes. “It’s certainly possible that if the cops were watching the scene in real time from 100 different angles, they might have missed something. But at least they would have had a chance to see something. That’s better than staying in the dark.”

There is a missing piece to both of these arguments, however. Surveillance, while at least partly designed to stop crime or terrorism before it starts, doesn’t account for those who aren’t looking to get away with their acts. That may have been the case with the Boston bombers, and it’s almost always true in a suicide bombing attack. Petty thieves and low-stakes criminals may very well be turned away from robbing a 7-Eleven or a liquor store when they’re confronted by visible security cameras, but a suicide bomber would likely relish the thought of being seen and recorded for posterity. It’s nearly impossible to combat this depth of humanity with technology.

The lesson here is that surveillance has a role, despite its current shortcomings. In the future, as facial recognition technology becomes more advanced and prevalent, perhaps an increase in cameras that can identify those on an FBI watch list as they walk down the street will serve to prevent another tragedy like the Boston bombings. But for now, we should take some comfort in the fact that the surveillance state acts as an efficient search and rescue/destroy/capture tool.

About the author  ⁄ Erik Helin

Erik is the chief Copywriter with BrickHouse Security. Hailing from the Midwest (Wisconsin), Erik moved to NYC in 2010, securing a job at BrickHouse shortly thereafter. Outside of work he writes about music, does freelance advertising work, and wastes his life on the internet. Aside from no-brainers like cheese and beer, Erik enjoys music, travel, TV, his cat, and Brooklyn.