Boston Bomber Manhunt Reveals Power, Risks of Crowd-Sourcing

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-04-22

Boston Bomber Manhunt Reveals Power, Risks of Crowd-Sourcing

The little good news that came out of Boston in the wake of the April 15 Patriots’ Day marathon bombing—beside the apprehension of the suspects—was that crowd-sourcing was a huge success in helping to identify the suspects.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Boston Police started what might reasonably be called the biggest crowd-sourced manhunt in history without knowing the sheer volume of tips and material the effort would produce.

But after two bomb explosions, at least four murders and hundreds of injuries, they had to do something fast. So they asked everyone to send them their digital photos. And that made all the difference.

The FBI started receiving thousands of tips, and thousands of photos from phones and digital cameras taken by spectators near the finish line of the Boston Marathon almost as soon as the dust had settled.

In addition, investigators obtained the photos from dozens of surveillance cameras near the area. In a press conference the next day, the FBI Special Agent in Charge, Richard DesLauriers, formally asked the public for help in providing any information they might have on the suspects.

Finally, after going through the thousands of photos and video images submitted by the public and by businesses in the area, the FBI asked for the public’s help again, this time to look at the photos that they had, and tell them what they’d found. The photos and a video exploded onto the Internet, and they did their job. The suspects were identified within a few hours.

Ultimately, the crowd-sourcing worked. Law enforcement knew within hours who they were looking for and that gave them a leg up on tracking them down.

But there was also a downside. Unfortunately, crowd-sourcing is messy. There were a number of mistaken identifications, including some published by some of the less-responsible news media who in some cases published photos obtained through their own crowd-sourcing efforts and identified the wrong people.

It also meant that the FBI tip line got a lot of bad tips. The FBI also got thousands of photos that had nothing to do with the bombings. But in any investigation where law enforcement asks for tips, the bad tips outnumber the good ones, so this goes with the territory.

Meanwhile, investigators were mining social media for more information on the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. One of the suspects, 19-year-old Dzhokhar (Djohar) Tsarnaev identified himself as a Chechan sympathizer on his social media page.

Boston Bomber Manhunt Reveals Power, Risks of Crowd-Sourcing

His older brother, Tamerlan, made his thoughts about Islamic terrorism clear on his YouTube page. Meanwhile, U.S. social networks were alive with thoughts about who the brothers were, where they were seen and investigators kept an eye on those, too.

It didn’t take long for the Boston Police and federal investigators to get a clear idea of what they faced. Because the crowd-sourcing results were made public so quickly, it forced the two alleged terrorists to move quickly and that was ultimately their undoing. In their haste they committed a series of criminal acts, including killing one police officer and nearly killing another. They made the mistake of telling a carjacking victim that they were responsible for the Boston bombings.

What hasn’t happened in previous terrorist investigations is the thousands of digital images it produced. Nearly everyone near the finish line of the Boston Marathon had a camera of some sort, and they were nearly all taking photos. The FBI was betting that given the number of photos, at least some would show the suspects engaged in actually planting the bombs as well as their actions immediately before and after doing so.

It turns out the FBI was right. One key piece of evidence turned up and was used in the charging documents that the government released on April 22. This was a series of photos taken by spectators that showed one of the suspects casually walking to the barrier at the marathon, taking off his backpack and setting it on the ground in the place where the explosion was to take place seconds later. Then, when the first explosion happened, the pictures show the suspect casually walking away while everyone else looked at where the bomb went off.

In the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings, everything worked. There were a lot of people with cameras, there was a collective desire to catch the people who had set off the bombs and there was a means for people to send along their tips and their evidence.

Because the photos were digital, it meant that facial recognition software had something to go to work with almost immediately. And while facial recognition isn’t foolproof, the technology is good enough to narrow down the number of things a person needs to look at.

The result was an incredibly fast investigation, one that moved so quickly that the suspects were caught before they could plan another attack, or even leave town. But there are still many who question whether the FBI and the police should have used crowd-sourcing in this way. There are suggestions that it somehow violates the privacy of the people attending the marathon.

While there are circumstances where this might be the case, the Boston Marathon is a public event where tens of thousands of people routinely take hundreds of thousands of photos. It’s hard to imagine how there’s an expectation of privacy in such a public setting. Instead, the availability of those hundreds of thousands of digital images in those thousands of cell phones is what turned the tide. Clearly, crowd-sourcing worked exactly as it should have.

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