By Ken Murphy
In hindsight, it’s hard to fathom how the suspected Boston Marathon bombers had any realistic expectations that they’d remain unidentified, let alone at large. This point was driven home Friday night with suspect No. 2’s capture in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, Mass. Clearly, this wasn’t someone with an exit strategy complete with safe houses, false identities, and forged documents.
That came as welcome news to an unnerved community, but of course offers little solace or comfort to the many victims of this senseless tragedy, which so deeply affected the people in Boston and the surrounding communities because the marathon really is a part of who we are. I’ve run the race. My family and I go every year. We were at my sister-in-law’s house at Mile 21 last week, and like everyone else we were stunned when emergency vehicles suddenly sped down Comm. Ave. toward the finish line, sirens blaring.
“Boston Strong” became the rallying cry, and it was evident that it was far more than a catchphrase, both in how it accurately portrayed a city that quickly bonded together over shared grief, but also in descr
ibing resolute Bostonians determined to see the murderers apprehended. That’s why it’s difficult to imagine a different outcome, especially with the roles that state-of-the-art software and the Nexus of Forces – Social, Mobile, Cloud, and Information – all played in working toward the suspect’s capture.
Those trends all played a part in the crowdsourcing that was a major part of the investigation. With thousands of spectators along the marathon route carrying smartphones, the FBI knew it would have many thousands of amateur images and videos to sift through – some of which, as it turned out, clearly identified the eventual suspects. (Of course, the downside of crowdsourcing was the “digital witch hunt” that followed.)
As expected, social media became a prime go-to source for breaking news. The Boston Police Department announced the suspect’s capture on Twitter. Afterward, investigators and news outlets turned to social media to search for clues and to frame an online profile. News outlets published the suspect’s tweets, and in this article the Associated Press published the suspect’s Amazon “wish list” using an email address on a public record report. (It was only a decade ago, in the wake of 9-11, that a debate raged about the Patriot Act’s provision to investigate someone’s library card borrowing history).
On Friday night, as the manhunt wound down, my wife created her own command center, perfectly illustrating how this Nexus of Forces puts everyone in the center of the action – which I would think helps more than hinders law enforcement efforts in everything from manhunts to Amber alerts. As she streamed the police scanner over her iMac, she was getting text updates in real-time from our nanny, whose boyfriend lives across the street from where the suspect was hiding out. I wasn’t home, but I was getting constant text updates from my wife before CNN reported the latest news.
Combine this trove of social media and crowdsourcing data with all these reports about facial-recognition software, thermal imaging that showed the suspect hiding out on the boat, and robots that pulled back the boat’s tarp, and again it’s amazing to think anyone could have imaged eluding capture. Again, while of little comfort to the victims, perhaps this incident and its outcome will give pause to anyone planning a similar terrorist attack.