After Boston Attack, Big Brother Will Be Watching
Business + Economy

After Boston Attack, Big Brother Will Be Watching

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Patriot day massacre in Boston made clear that not all anti-terrorism strategies employed since 9/11 are effective in stopping homegrown attacks. Boston proved the United States is vulnerable to small-scale incidents in which the attackers goal is do harm and then escape; the two suspects identified by the FBI Thursday afternoon did just that.

Attacks like the one that took place in Boston demand a different strategy. According to Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, the best way to prevent these kinds of attacks and identify suspects is through widespread surveillance not just in big cities, but also across the country.

“There’s no doubt that what the government and law enforcement want is more cameras on the street,” he said.

In many cities, Big Brother is already watching. New York and Chicago already have extensive surveillance systems. But as the Boston massacre shows, many cities lack extensive surveillance capabilities. This is despite the fact that a federal government report has shown that these systems save money—and lives. New York has even discovered profit potential with its surveillance system.

Because law officials say these cameras, along with an increase in cyber surveillance, make the country less vulnerable to a Boston-style attack, Big Brother is only likely to grow stronger, even as concerns about privacy persist.

Following the bombings in Boston, many expected there to be multiple shots of the area immediately before and after the explosion in addition to images captured by a private camera on the Lord & Taylor building. But authorities struggled to find videos and images that captured what occurred at the finish line. So they turned to the public to ask for footage of the scene.

“When you hear law enforcement official say, ‘If you have cell phone, video, please send it do us,’ that’s a bad sign,” Lankford said. “That’s them saying that we didn’t have our own video.”

“These were not suicide terrorists; they wanted to get away with it. You deter these attackers with cameras,” he added. “If they know they’re being filmed, they’re less likely to do it.”

Surveillance systems are relatively cheap. A 2011 Justice Department analysis of surveillance cameras in American cities found that a “cost-benefit analysis indicates that … monthly benefits from averted crime are greater than its monthly costs.”

And while the cost of installing a national surveillance system has not yet been calculated, existing systems are worth the upfront investment. According to the report, surveillance cameras “yielded $1.06 in benefits for every dollar spent on them.”

New York has even found a way to make money from their surveillance operation. NYPD teamed up with Microsoft to create the $30 million Domain Awareness System, which integrates surveillance footage with police data. Other cities have expressed interest in using the system: New York City would get 30 percent of the revenue from any sale of the software that was designed for this special purpose.  

An expanded surveillance network would also include a cyber component, according to Larry Ponemon, founder of the Ponemon Institute, a think tank that studies data privacy. He said that the government has the ability to mine online data of American citizens, looking for suspicious patterns or chatter. Authorities are likely doing this right now in an attempt to find the Boston bomber, Ponemon said.

“There are some limits [on what data the government can mine], but they’re minuscule,” he said. “The government, on the basis of a strong suspicion that a person or group is conducting terrorism activities, has the upper hand. They can collect information instantaneously.”

A push for more surveillance has joined unlikely allies. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said that in five years, “there’ll be cameras every place…We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I just don’t see how you could stop that.” He was joined by New York Republican John King, who called for an increase in the number of cameras on the street. “I do think we need more cameras. We have to stay ahead of the terrorists,” he said.

Neither Lankford nor Ponemon said privacy advocates would be able to stop this.

“There’s a tendency for people to say we want safety and security and we’re willing to give up privacy rights in the wake of attacks like Boston,” Ponemon said. “There seems to be a pendulum affect between privacy and security. It’s not swinging in the direction of greater security.”