Authorities have long asked the public for help in solving crimes and ratting out wrongdoers. But now that everyone carries phones that can produce pictures, videos and sounds, the public's potential role in affecting events has ballooned.

I like to think that, in the end, that's a good thing. But as the "drop" controversy at the Masters Tournament and the widespread amateur sleuthing evident after the Boston Marathon bombing show, there are a lot of unanswered questions and a lack of precedent to deal with along the way.

Tiger Woods  infamous drop during the Masters Tournament cost him two strokes. The issue was brought to officials  attention by a TV viewer.
Tiger Woods infamous drop during the Masters Tournament cost him two strokes. The issue was brought to officials attention by a TV viewer. ( AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

After this week's bombings at the Boston Marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, authorities asked the public to examine their photos and videos for anything that might help them find the bomber. And why not? Since Abraham Zapruder accidentally filmed President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the public has taken on a greater role in documenting crimes.

Cybersleuths

On Wednesday, investigators found someone on a local security video who may have been involved with the bombings. It wasn't clear whether anyone's personal video has contributed so far. But on website after website (most notably Reddit), you could find people analyzing posted crime scene photos for clues and culprits, speculating on whether certain people in the images were guilty.


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On any given day, police have potentially thousands of Zapruders out there, thanks to every last human, animal and plant possessing combo cellphones/cameras/recorders. On the surface, it sounds like a great thing. But that rightfully raises some questions.

For example, does the public providing law enforcement more eyes and ears on the street also provide a bigger potential for doctored evidence to get out there? Will criminals plant their own people at potential crime scenes to film contradictory "evidence"? Will verbal testimony and human recollection take a back seat to what supposedly shows up on someone's phone?

In other words, are the methods for identifying doctored evidence keeping up with the ability to create it? How will authorities know whether to accept the word of people claiming to be in the right place at the right time? How much weight should the technology-armed public have in helping to determine the fate of the accused?

And what happens to the people falsely accused by fast-working amateur sleuths?

Eagle-eyed viewers

Though certainly much lower on the scale of real-world importance, Tiger Woods' fate at the Masters earlier this month was influenced by someone watching the tournament at home on their television. Something Woods said during a post-round interview led the viewer to believe the golfer broke a rule on his now-infamous "drop." Questions arose over where he placed a new ball after hitting a shot into in a water hazard. Apparently, Woods didn't make the drop where he was supposed to, which cost him a two-stroke penalty -- and all of it came about after a viewer called it in.

In recent years, the Professional Golfers Association has allowed members of the public to call in rules violations they notice on TV (and, of course, TV pictures are getting larger and crisper by the year). No other sport I know of allows everyday viewers to participate in an event's outcome like this, and it raises a thorny question of what motivations these people have. Is there any such thing as an impartial sports fan?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when average folks are empowered to affect bigger matters -- not just with their opinions, but with evidence. I don't pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I sure hope someone else does -- soon.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.