But the rush to assist using crowdsourced, amateur sleuthing, also risked tarring innocent people, based on little evidence. A day before the FBI’s announcement, a social media research team at Northeastern University shuttered plans for a crowdsourcing investigation, amidst fears that it would be unable to prevent the wrong people from being implicated in the attack. The team planned to ask users to submit photos through a website, which was to be launched today, and plot the images on a map of the area around the attack. Users would then tag the photos, or areas within a picture, with terms that could aid the investigation, like “person of interest” or “black bag.”
But the plan was cancelled yesterday after concerns surfaced that the team was too small to continually monitor the project, said David Lazer, the team’s leader and a professor of computer science at Northeastern. Without that oversight “it could be really bad, you could imagine identifying a suspect just because they had a black backpack,” Mr. Lazer said.
The project was scheduled to launch today, but even if the team had decided to push it forward, Mr. Lazer would have had to gain approval from a university ethics board and counsel. But other groups may not be so constrained. As business and government explore how to harness the power of crowds they will need to decide when the potential harm of crowdsourcing is too great, said K. Krasnow Waterman, a former counsel for the FBI. “The concept of lots of eyeballs is fantastic,” Ms. Krasnow Waterman said. “But you run the risk of serious harm to someone who is wrongly implicated by untrained amateur investigators.”