Thursday, 20 June 2013

Following the Boston Marathon Bombings, Are New Internet Laws Required?

by Charlie Henderson

Innocent: Sunil Tripathi
(source: Huffington Post)
As many of you probably know, on April 15th two bombs were set off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in the city’s centre, killing 3 people, including an eight year old boy and injuring 264 more. What followed was one of the largest man-hunts in US history, which culminated in a shoot-out between the two suspects (Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev) and law enforcement, in which Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar was injured, along with 16 police officers.
During the man-hunt, users of social media websites such as Twitter and Reddit were encouraged to trawl through the publically available CCTV images of the marathon to try to identify the perpetrators of the bombings. This ‘crowd sourcing’ made apparent the huge power social media holds. When a thread on Reddit made a comparison between a photo of a suspect (who was later identified as Dzhokhar) and the missing 22 year old student Sunil Tripathi, an online witch hunt was started which led to Tripathi's family home being surrounded by news vans and the Facebook page set up to help find him being bombarded by hate messages. During an interview with BBC World Service, Sunni’s sister, Sangeeta Tripathi, said "Our entire neighbourhood and our house were surrounded by media trucks. On my personal cell phone I got 72 phone calls between 3am and 4.30 in the morning.” The only evidence that the online sleuths had that Tripathi was the bomber was that he looked similar to one of the suspects and that he had been missing since mid-March. Sunil Tripathi’s body was found on the 23rd April, 2013; it is thought that he died before the bombings took place.
In the past, man-hunts were the domain of the police and the public’s only sources of information were tightly controlled newspapers and official wanted posters. Now so called ‘internet sleuths’ can become pseudo-policemen from thousands of miles away, which, in the case of Sunil Tripathi, had disastrous consequences.
Although the framing of innocent people online causes great distress for them and their families, there is a much more serious effect that is not immediately obvious. The FBI (the American equivalent of MI5) reportedly identified the Tsarnaev brothers early in their investigations, but were keen not release there photos until after they had been apprehended, as this would give them warning that they had been identified. When the FBI became aware of the online man hunt on the 18th of April, they released photos of the Tsarnaev brothers. The FBI released the photos to protect the victims of the online vigilantes and their families. Barely hours after the photos were released, the brothers shot and killed a policeman on the campus of one of America’s top universities, MIT; it is thought that they carried out the shooting so soon after the bombings as a result of their identities being released, in a desperate last attempt to have as big an impact as possible, meaning that, perhaps, the online vigilantes did more harm than good.
This presents a new problem for the governments of the world; to prevent a repeat of the Tripathi case they would have to impose strict laws preventing people speculating online on who committed something; or they do nothing and risk a repeat of this case, resulting in avoidable fatalities. Following the recent surveillance scandal that has rocked the US and its allies over the last fortnight, it is unlikely that the necessary legislation will be introduced in any of these countries. We have reached a crisis point, where we must choose between security (thus introducing new laws restricting internet traffic in the wake of attacks) and privacy (where we do nothing and risk even more people being harassed and more criminal investigations being seriously hindered).

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