Boston Bomber Manhunt Reveals Power, Risks of Crowd-Sourcing

NEWS ANALYSIS: The intense manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects demonstrated the effectiveness of crowd-sourcing for images and information in a massive terrorism investigation.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...