The successful investigation of Monday’s bombings at the Boston marathon relied on crowdsourced surveillance.  This new method of collecting clues may revolutionize how law enforcement across the United States does business.

In Boston, hundreds of marathon spectators and local media provided law enforcement authorities with thousands of cellphone photos, videos, and Instagram feeds.  The multimedia taken during the event created a comprehensive view of the crime scene from nearly every conceivable angle.

Within minutes, thousands of images were posted online on Facebook and Twitter right after the attack that killed three and injured more than 150 people took place.  On Friday, officials arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Cambridge after a night of violence that left one MIT police officer dead and an MBTA Transit Police officer wounded.

Tsarnaev’s elder brother and accomplice, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died early Friday morning after a gunfight with police.  Tsarnaev was an amateur boxer who previously trained to become a member of the U.S. Olympic team.

The Boston investigation was led by FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers who used the principles of crowdsourcing to rapidly find clues before both suspects could flee the city and possibly the country.  DesLauriers ordered his team to inspect any and all imagery and footage taken near Monday’s blasts.

Credit: Commons Wikimedia
Boston marathon bombings on April 15, 2013.  Credit: Commons Wikimedia

Crowdsourcing gathers resources through a decentralized effort.  In a non-traditional move, local, state and federal authorities openly urged spectators to provide any images or videos that could provide leads in the case.  The general public was given phone numbers and website information of local and state police, Homeland Security, and the FBI.

Innovative technology also aided the effort.  A software called Crowd Optic could have determined the most popular images around the time of the bombing. Smart metadata embedded in cellphone images could help to pinpoint the exact geo-locations of thousands of snapshots. The clues could help investigators to identify critical leads near ground zero and help them identify the suspect much faster.

As a result of a collective effort, police investigators and FBI special agents were able to determine the type of weapon used (a homemade bomb made out of a metal pressure cooker) in less than 24 hours.  Within 72 hours, officials released surveillance photos of the two suspects who carried large, dark backpacks near the exact location of the bombing.  The most helpful pieces of information were taken by nearby shops, as well as, spectators who captured images of the suspects walking through the crowds.

Distribution of the footage to news media and social networks led to the quick identification and deadly confrontation with the suspects.  Instead of taking weeks or months, the FBI was able to capture the Tsarnaev brothers within days.

It should be noted that criminal investigators often choose not to solicit information from the general public, and may instead shy away from media coverage.  This is often done to ensure a professional process and that random strangers do not submit misleading or false clues that result in expensive diversions or delays.

However, crowdsourcing technology and the viral popularity of helpful footage may change how law enforcement does business.  Digital cameras and smartphones attach smart metadata to images.  In effect, such technologies provide major events with hundreds of amateur journalists all broadcasting their footage on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Their collective, 360-degree view helps authorities uncover critical clues for solving the case and reduces the turnaround for a successful investigation.  The amateur footage adds to the comprehensive network of surveillance cameras already employed by local and national agencies as well as by private businesses.

For instance, the city of Boston uses at least 147 wireless CCTV cameras placed throughout the metropolis.  There are also thousands of cameras throughout the public transportation system and private premises.  Capturing images is growing cheaper every day.  A team of forensic experts also won’t be able to analyze thousands of images within days, and that creates incentives for officials to ask the public for help in identifying clues in the images they submit online.