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In recent Crush The Street posts, I’ve discussed the increasing encroachment of the surveillance state. Instituted by government agencies or willingly purchased and brought into the home, digital devices often record our every movement. Understandably, most folks are leery about “Big Brother” and its actions when they learn about it.

However, Big Brother also at times acts the part of the protective elder sibling. Recently, The New York Times highlighted a murder case in Phoenix, Arizona. Usually, such incidents – which are unfortunately becoming all too frequent — don’t generate national headlines. After all, thousands fall victim to murders every year.

This particular murder case was about to go cold, like so many others due to lack of evidence or witnesses. But it turns out, there was one onlooker: Google.

After discovering very little in the crime scene, Phoenix police obtained a search warrant against the internet giant. What law enforcement sought were digital footprints surrounding the immediate area at the time of the murder. Essentially, police used Google as a dragnet to find an elusive criminal.

And like it or not, this is an effective use of internet and wireless technologies. Until that is, law enforcement decides to arrest an innocent person.

 

Big Brother Goes Too Far

In this case, police had little to go on besides someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic. But perhaps due to their zealous desire to find justice, detectives used circumstantial evidence to ping an individual who had nothing to do with the murder.

While technology plays a critical role in our modern society, it also levers significant drawbacks. A common one is an almost-universal dependency on said technology. For instance, how many of us have eroded arithmetic skills because we have easy access to a calculator? Or even worse, how about folks who don’t pay attention on the road because they rely on vehicular smart sensors?

With cold cases, any bit of information – even if it comes from Big Brother – is incredibly useful. But shockingly, it seems that with this Phoenix case, investigators became overly dependent on this digital dragnet. We’re used to searching through Google, and having it spit out immediate (and often accurate) answers.

Is this what detectives did here? The evidence suggests so. After all, why would police arrest an innocent man simply on the basis of he driving a white Honda Civic? Look around you next time you’re on the road: I’m sure a good quarter of the cars you see are Honda Civics.

What this badly-fumbled investigation still demonstrates is a viable use of technology. However, humans still must demonstrate core competency in order to maximize its potential for the higher good.