The Boston Marathon bombings marked the end of any expectation Americans have of privacy in a public place. Increasingly, they have lower expectations of privacy in nonpublic places, too.
Privacy groups previously had pushed back against the prevalence of surveillance cameras, arguing that these should be targeted toward specific purposes such as combating crime and vandalism, rather than sweeping up images of crowds wholesale.
That changed with Monday's two explosions at the marathon's finish line. After that, law enforcement painstakingly plowed through thousands of images from commercial surveillance cameras as well as those submitted by the camera- and cellphone-wielding public.
By late Thursday, the FBI had released images of two young men carrying backpacks and walking down the sidewalk where the explosions took place. One, wearing a dark cap, was described as Suspect 1; the other, in a white cap, was Suspect 2. The photos quickly went viral and the tips poured in.
Not long after law enforcement's release of those photos on Thursday, the bombing suspects, later identified as ethnic Chechen brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, broke cover, resulting in a crime spree in which a Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer was killed, a convenience store robbed and an SUV hijacked. During a police chase in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Suspect 1 (Tamerlan) was killed. As of Friday afternoon, Suspect 2 (Dzhokhar) was believed holed up in a Watertown neighborhood, with much of the Boston metropolitan area shut down.
This manhunt could end well, with an apprehension; or badly, with one more death. But its lasting legacy in this country will be the accepted widespread use of surveillance cameras.
The notoriously privacy-conscious British already have acquiesced, after closed-circuit cameras helped crack a 2005 suicide bombing that killed 52 subway commuters in London. Now, London has the world's largest surveillance network, with an estimated 10,000 cameras.
Following 9/11, Americans grudgingly allowed the feds greater and easier access to their phone lines, cell towers, bank accounts, mail and even their library records.
This week's bombings likely will give impetus to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, now stalled in Congress over privacy considerations. The legislation encourages intelligence-sharing among private companies and federal agencies by exempting them from civil and criminal liability laws.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.