Insight from tracking the Boston Marathon bombing suspects

By on June 8th, 2013 in Ethics, Privacy & Security, Topics

PBS Nova recently broadcast (with amazingly short turn around) a show on the technology used to track the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.  (Since NOVA is produced in Boston via WGBH that is not too surprising, but they also pulled off a NOVA the same night on the Oklahoma Tornado)

The show outlined the types of technology used, and examples from other cities of technology that might have been used if it were available.  It presents an interesting, but perhaps a bit disturbing view of current and emerging police systems in the U.S.

Within minutes, Boston police were starting to get access to the many corporate video cameras recording in the area, and started an intensive evaluation. Boston does not have the fully integrated, real time video feeds from private and public sources that New York does.  The NYC system is called the “Domain Awareness System” (DAS)  and is integrated with many other elements.  For example, a 911 call can be triangulated to the cell phone connection, cameras in that area highlighted so even before the phone discussion starts, the dispatcher can be viewing the source of the call. Integration with face recognition allows for identifying suspects (although that process failed in the Boston case, in part due to the poor quality of pictures available.)

The DAS system also tracks the license plates of every vehicle entering or leaving Manhattan via cameras associated with every bridge and tunnel. It appears from the show that at least 30 days of video are saved for every one of the rumored 3000+ video feeds being tracked in the system. Interestingly, there is very little information about this system on the NYC web site, a bit on guidelines and authority, press releases, but not a lot of government transparency.

While standard face recognition technology did not yield results, two other systems did. Marios Savvides at CMU is developing an advanced facial recognition system that can operate off lower quality images, and when a good picture was included in a million plus face data base, it was number twenty in the selected group.  So we can expect new generations of this capability. There was a surge of crowd-sourcing in terms of providing the police with information and pictures, but also in terms of reviewing posted pictures (REDDIT) being a key community for this.  While the Reddit process did not ID valid suspects (it did surface innocent folks), it did force the Boston Police into posting their photos of the suspects.  This also did not result in an ID, but it did appear to force the suspects into activities that ultimately killed a police officer, hijacked a car and resulted in the death of one and capture of the other.

Cell phone triangulation played a role in locating the suspects, just with the phone turned on, no call required.  (I wonder if an OnStar or similar system could also have been used.) The Boston Police also used plane and helicopter based infra-red cameras to try to locate the final suspect.  This proved quite successful as the individual was hiding in a boat with a covering that was IR transparent, providing a clear indication of his location.

The NOVA program ends with an often heard commentary about how some of the technology really helped, some didn’t deliver… but we must consider the implications for the privacy of citizens as this technology emerges.