Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Technology: Friend or Foe?

The Boston bombings have again led us to a serious question that has yet to be seriously answered. Namely, what measures should be implemented to more effectively preempt terrorism, and how do we balance those measures with our civil liberties?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is thought to have masterminded the bombings, is now known to have engaged in a number of radical content on social media. Tsarnaev’s YouTube account revealed a playlist labeled “terrorism”, videos of an obscure Dagestani jihadist, and a song by Timur Mutsurayev entitled “Life Devoted to Jihad.” Criticisms about the failure to identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a potential terrorist are starting to appear, with some commentators asserting that the “signs were there.”

So how could federal authorities have done a better job at fingering the Tsarnaev brothers? Could expanding provisions in the USA Patriot Act have allowed them to identify Tamerlan as a potential terrorist threat and monitor his activities? Perhaps this would have helped the FBI confirm Russian suspicions that he was connected to Chechen militants.

How about the increased use of technology for public safety? Following the attack, the FBI and Boston Police Department were able to identify the Tsarnaev brothers with the help of Closed Circuit Television, or CCTV. Some of the CCTV footage of Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s reaction after the first explosion may now be a key piece of evidence in his prosecution.

Would increasing the number of CCTV cameras in our cities help authorities identify criminals more efficiently and effectively? Moreover, to what extent would the presence of CCTV help deter future crime? CCTV has already proliferated in a number of European countries, such as the United Kingdom where it is welcomed by 90% of Londoners surveyed by UrbanEye.

Technology that improves the government’s ability to identify and monitor criminal activity could reduce crime rates and help prevent a catastrophe like the Boston bombings from occurring in the future. Of course, while technology has an amazing capacity to hamstring crime, it also has an uncomfortable ability to threaten our privacy and undermine fundamental civil liberties. The primary criticism against increased surveillance is that the government would be monitoring possible criminal activity, which may very likely turn out to be non-criminal activity.

Following the Madrid bombings in 2004, Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, became a suspect after the FBI had erroneously matched his fingerprints with those found on a bag of detonators associated with the attacks. Under provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the FBI began wiretapping Mr. Mayfield’s conversations, conducting secret searches of his home and gathering bank and phone records—acts that normally require probable cause and judicial approval.

While the inclination after a highly symbolic act of violence may be to give the authorities carte blanche to prevent a similar act from occurring again, we must be careful not to let fear shepherd our decision-making. Nor must we fail to seriously consider the extent to which we can implement more invasive security measures without jettisoning our privacy. How often have the utopian societies of science fiction plummeted precariously into dystopian nightmares?

In an ad hoc poll conducted by Marblehead, 69% of respondents reported that Dzhokar Tsarnaev should not have been read his Miranda rights at the time of his arrest. Whether the public safety exemption is a key method for gathering intelligence or a pernicious dismissal of the constitution is a question about which we should not be cavalier.

In the aftermath of September 11th, some of the most important decisions we made were governed by fear. Justice was supplanted by revenge and rational thought was demoted in favor of emotion.

The Tsarnaev brothers may be despicable. Their wickedness has shaken our collective spirit in a way that we have felt far too often this year. But it is precisely when our American spirit is shaken that our constitution must stand firm.

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