Crowd-Sourcing Big Brother

We've been worried about a surveillance state since long before George Orwell's 1984. But one thing the Boston bombing taught us is that friends and family are watching much more closely than the FBI.
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The Dark Knight. (COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.)

The Dark Knight. (COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.)

Last week, Boston law enforcement authorities and the FBI found themselves in a tough situation. A heinous crime had been committed, but they had no suspects or leads. So they asked for help. If you had photos or video from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, they said, send it in. People responded with great enthusiasm, submitting terabytes of data. Included in the many images were the now-iconic pictures of the two suspects, one of whom is now dead, the other in custody.

This series of events served as an important lesson about the government's surveillance capabilities. Almost no event in a modern U.S. city, no less a major sports event, goes unrecorded today. But, apart from some security and traffic enforcement cameras, it's not the government doing the recording. It's us. We're constantly taking pictures and movies of ourselves and our friends, sometimes posting them on social media sites and helpfully tagging our locations and the names of our acquaintances. And when the government asks for them as evidence in a case, we eagerly comply.

Who knew that people would not only not protest, but would actually eagerly participate?

This isn't the security state we were warned about. In 1984, George Orwell painted a picture of a paranoid, hyper-aggressive government that installed cameras and listening devices in all of our homes and on all of our streets, watching and listening for any sign of dissent. It is difficult to conceive of the costs incurred by the state in this vision.

In The Dark Knight (2008), the second in Christopher Nolan's re-imagined Batman trilogy, Gotham police faced a similar situation to that faced by the FBI in Boston last week, needing to find an unpredictable killer hiding somewhere in the city. Batman pitches in by creating a device that secretly uses every cell phone in the city as a form of sonar, allowing him to constantly surveil everything. Even our superhero considers this device so terrible and potentially destructive to the liberties of the people he's sworn to protect that he designs it to be used only once—by someone other than him—and then to destroy itself.

Apparently, Bruce Wayne could have saved himself quite a bit of money just by asking people to submit their cell phone photos. Who knew that people would not only not protest, but would actually eagerly participate?

Several studies from political psychology (such as this, this, and this) show that people are actually quite willing to defer to authorities during a time of crisis. And as Stanley Milgram's classic, creepy studies show, sometimes there doesn't even need to be a crisis for people to submit to authorities, even in horrible ways. Besides, in the Boston case, it's not like this was a major imposition—if the authorities want my photos of my friends standing in front of a coffee shop, what's the harm? And when it leads to the arrest or death of some pretty dangerous people, it's easy to feel like it was a good trade.

Nonetheless, last week's events showed us a face of Big Brother that wasn't widely anticipated. The state doesn't need to spy on us constantly to root out wrongdoers. It doesn't need to hire thousands of undercover officers to catch criminals. We'll do the job for free.

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