The Boston Bombers Vs High Tech

It took twelve days for the army to trap Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, a well-known stage actor who had jumped to the theater’s stage after shooting the President, and then hobbled off on a broken leg. It took less than five days for the FBI, the agency investigating the Boston Marathon bombing, to identify and kill or capture the perpetrators who had who had successfully blended into the large crowd near the marathon’s finish line, carrying innocent-looking backpacks of death.

A team of technologies lent a hand at Boston that wasn’t dreamed of in Lincoln’s day. Ironically, those technologies were typically be met with mistrust at their introduction.

Public Surveillance Cameras

Almost certainly, surveillance cameras near the bombings played a vital part in the bombers’ identification. The grainy images of the two young suspects they provided were flashed around the world in seconds via television and another powerful new technology – the internet. In response, citizens sent their own photos and video recordings with even clearer pictures of the suspects. And tipsters, including the aunt of the bombers, called in with names to go with the faces.

Shortly after the manhunt ended, there was a strange exchange on a TV news show. American TV journalist Lesley Stahl blurted “We’re all going to end up wearing burqas.” She was not suggesting that the country will turn Islamic. She was using burqas as a metaphor for clothes that citizens might need to wear if they want to maintain their anonymity in a society of security cameras. Somehow, the fact that cameras helped ID the bombers led those liberal reporters to bemoan the loss of anonymity. They seemed to overlook the fact that it took a dire situation and countless man-hours scanning countless images to strip away the anonymity of the two mass murderers.

That stance subtly differs from the right wing libertarian opposed to such cameras. They instead perceive the danger as being in the government’s gathering of such information for undefined evil purposes. Either way, the inspiration seems to be George Orwell’s Big Brother. And that inspiration doesn’t seem to leave room for more than one value. Either Good. Or Evil.

While I have yet to encounter examples where people’s lives were unjustly ruined by them, there are many examples of crime solving being aided with these devices.

For instance, surveillance cameras helped quickly identify suspects in the London bombings of 2005.

The killer who attempted to assassinate an Arizona congresswoman, and did manage to kill several other people surrounding her, was caught on the store camera just before his shooting spree. He was subdued at the scene, but the camera was able to prove that a man who entered the store with him before the shooting was an innocent taxi driver – not an accomplice.

It’s now mundane to see television news showing camera recordings of crimes within a store, or just outside, such as child abductions, robberies, or assaults, accompanied by a plea to help identify someone in the recording.

This continued effectiveness of surveillance cameras may be forcing a change of attitude. Since the bombing, this shifting sentiment has been the theme of a many articles and editorials that struggle at the same time to find a balance between the highly effective crime fighting abilities of such cameras and their perceived intrusiveness.

Reality has a way of trumping paranoia.

The Internet

Once again, the internet played a major role in disseminating breaking news. Whenever an big event like this drags on, the internet becomes a news update blitzkrieg – from professional news websites, and from ordinary people acting as reporters. Many webpages devoted themselves to providing the most recent updates. While others tweeted the event’s progress. However, these have a weakness: unreliability. Without the time or resources to check each tidbit, a lot of misinformation was posted. This compelled the FBI at one point to issue a warning on the rampant misinformation found on the internet.

The FBI probably was most concerned about internet action by some amateur-in-the-streets found on Reddit.com. which setup a site where citizen photographs taken at the scene could be posted. Internet passersby were invited to examine the photographs and search for suspicious looking people. Some of those responsible apologized afterwards for targeting people who were proved, when the smoke cleared, to have had no involvement.

This sort of thing seems to have prompted the FBI to post the images of their suspects when they did – even though it went against their better judgment – so says a fascinating Washington Post article1 on the behind-the-scenes story of the investigation. The article says the FBI had two purposes for posting those photographs. To get help with the identification. And to prevent the targeting of innocent people.

While the FBI did get helpful responses, publicizing those pictures may have spurred the suspects into action they might not have taken otherwise. Could the death of the MIT police officer have been avoided by not making their photographs known? Without access to alternate histories, we will never know.

As a breaking news outlet, the internet works fine as long as the reader takes everything with a grain of salt. But it actually proved dangerous as a forum for amateur sleuthing.

Face Recognition

The one notable failure on the technology team was face recognition software. A favorite of TV police procedurals, they showed their real-life limitation in this investigation. Both brothers had their photographs in the system. Yet, the software couldn’t resolve the grainy images from the surveillance cameras or the low-resolution images from cell phone cameras well enough to make a match.

The Absence of Drones

With all the talk about drones recently, they were surprisingly absent in this crisis. At least, there was no mention of them.

In an interview with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – who’s famous for his stand against use of drone weaponry within the US against American citizens – he refined his stance by supporting the use of drones against citizens who are making lethal, imminent threats. The example he used was a hold up at gunpoint. But this confession was made during a discussion on the Boston bombing.

Freedom Fighting

The Boston bombing is only the latest example of the effectiveness of some of these new tools. While it’s wise to ensure that they do not inhibit our freedom, it’s equally wise to recognize where they can enhance our freedom, too. And crime fighting is, by definition, fighting for our freedom.


1 Washington Post, “Police, citizens and technology factor into Boston bombing probe”, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/inside-the-investigation-of-the-boston-marathon-bombing/2013/04/20/19d8c322-a8ff-11e2-b029-8fb7e977ef71_story.html

photo credit: Vjeran Pavic via photopin cc

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