Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, and once police identified the accused bombers, the manhunt began. The police and other teams scoured Boston and the surrounding area for the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile, the rest of the country scoured the Internet for their Internet presence. However, this had a new effect in light of the tragedy of the bombing:
The social media droppings the Tsarnaev brothers left behind not only attest to their own immersion in the interactive, electronic world, but they have also provided everyone else with plenty of digital data from which to try to extract patterns and possible meaning — fulfilling that very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming.
(Unraveling Boston Suspects’ Online Lives Link by Link, New York Times)
With the continuing revelations surrounding the extent of NSA surveillance of, and indeed, spying on, Internet traffic and cell phone transmissions, the reality becomes that a more sinister narrative could arise. With the “social media droppings”–combined with location data provided by cell phone metadata, the content and recipients skimmed from our email messages, and decrypted VPN and SSL traffic–a very new, and more elaborate pattern and meaning could be constructed. As Sarah Kendzior points out in her most recent piece for Al Jazeera:
The greatest danger of data collection lies not in the information, but in its interpretation. With billions of pieces of intelligence stored in a given month, the ability to gather data has exceeded the ability to analyse it. The trail supersedes the target. Data becomes its own context.
She goes on to elaborate:
The greatest threat of online surveillance is not that they know us, but that they think they do, and we are hostage to their interpretation. They will spy until “something happens”, and what we naively called “life” will be spit back as evidence.