Marathon Monday investigation rolls on: the irony of being a privacy advocate in an NCIS world

Ah, yes. The advantages of living in a security state.

Authorities have clear video images of two separate suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings carrying black bags at each explosion site and are planning to release the images today in an appeal for the public’s help in identifying the men, according to an official briefed on the case.

The official said that the two suspects were seen separately on videotape — one at each of the two bombing sites, which are located about a block apart.

The official, who spoke this morning on the condition of anonymity, said the best video has come from surveillance cameras on the same side of Boylston Street as the explosions. The official said the widely reported Lord and Taylor surveillance camera, and snapshots from individual cellphone camera users, have not provided the clearest images.

Big Brother is watching. Also, Lord & Taylor, the bodega on the corner, the liquor store, the dry cleaner, the douchenozzle at the next table with the funny glasses

This is all pretty high-tech, NCIS stuff.

If investigators in Boston can find a facial image of sufficient quality from the videos, it could provide a powerful lead. The F.B.I. has been working for several years to create a facial recognition program, and the video of a suspect or suspects could be matched against the bureau’s database of mug shots of about 12 million people who have been arrested, officials said.

If there is no match, investigators can hunt for the suspects’ images in the voluminous videos and photographs from the bombing site that were submitted by members of the public in response to an F.B.I. appeal. That is still a technically difficult task, because the software is most accurate with head-on facial images and can be thrown off even by a smile, specialists said on Wednesday.

Still, “it’s vastly superior to just watching the video,” said Al Shipp, chief executive of 3VR Inc., a company that sells video analytics software. “You can sort through years of video in seconds. That’s the game changer.”

By piecing together more images of suspects and their movements, the F.B.I. might be able to come up with a name. Even without a name, Mr. Shipp said, investigators could program multiple cameras at airports and elsewhere with the suspects’ images so the cameras would send an alert to them if someone resembling a suspect passed by.

CATEGORY: PrivacyIf only everyone had been wearing Google Glass, huh?


It’s no secret that we here at S&R care a lot about things like freedom and privacy. We’ve written any number of times about the encroachments of advanced electronic technology (heck, I’ve even gone all Minority Report over things like the shopping cart of the future).

At the same time, I think we understand the allure of surveillance technology. They never solved the bombing of Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 21, did they? Or the 1933 United Airlines Boeing 247 crash. Who robbed the Denver Mint? Who was the Batman rapist? Whatever happened to Maud Crawford? And we never found out the identity of the Boy in the Box.

There are lots of mysterious unsolved crimes across our history – some famous, some obscure. The thing is, if you took the time to map out and examine each and every one of them, you’d probably notice a pattern: thanks to modern investigation techniques enabled by advanced forensics technology, it’s getting harder and harder to get away with anything. It isn’t impossible, of course. But Jack the Ripper didn’t have to worry about Abby Sciuto.

You might hate the idea that your every movement is being recorded as you wander around your local Target. You’re uneasy about the knowledge that every time you buy something online, every time you use a credit card, every time you save a few pennies with that supermarket loyalty card, Big Data knows a little more about you. Maybe a little too much. Maybe more than you even know yourself. If you’re really plugged in, you have to be a little unsettled by the certainty that if this information isn’t automatically being shared with the NSA, it will be instantly upon request. Without a warrant. Wait – did you recently buy some fertilizer? Nails? Ball bearings? A pressure cooker?

Hold on a second – somebody’s knocking at the door.

But if somebody breaks into your car while you’re shopping in Target, the fact that the cameras in the parking lot captured the perp means you might get your stuff back. If one of your family members was injured on what they’re now calling “Marathon Monday,” you’ll probably forgive all that nosy surveillance technology at least a little bit when it brings the terrorists to justice – as it inevitably will.

We live in an increasingly complex society. Our lives are confusing, our values conflicted, and every day seemingly presents us with another challenge to the kind of social, ethical and moral stability that might afford us a measure of inner peace. The world moves beneath our feet, no matter where we stand, no matter how tightly we cling to the sacred icons of our once-unshakeable institutions and ideologies.

I can’t tell you that I have it all figured out, but I will say this: in my experience, there’s no substitute for a highly developed sense of irony.

3 replies »

  1. Good piece, although I think we’re still aways from no crime unsolved. (1) As I have noted before, there is safety in quantity, and there are so many people and they are so mobile that there will still be room for evil. (2) As I have also noted, for the most part, forensics has proved helpful in sorting suspects and convicting them, not for identifying them. That day will come, but it’s not quite here yet. (3) Criminal behavior is an adaptive system. Bank robbers have learned to wear simple disquises and turn their heads away from the cameras. Mobsters have learned to use disposable phones. Sex murderers have already learned from TV not to leave any DNA behind, even if that means cutting off the fingers, splashing everything with bleach and burning the body.

  2. I don’t think that i would forgive it, at least i hope i wouldn’t.

    There’s no question that surveillance and forensic technology is advancing at an astounding rate, but i think it’s not so advanced as we are led to believe. In this case, the FBI knew all about the older brother. Either it did know who he was after the bombing and didn’t tell the public or it couldn’t manage to use multiple pictures of him to check its own database. He was a US citizen and both had things like social media accounts, but the FBI and all the other agencies couldn’t track down where he lived. If they could have known the necessary information, they wouldn’t have released the photo information to the public. They would have gone to the home address.

    We’re conditioned to think that law enforcement has greater technological power and general ability through watching all the TV shows in which law enforcement uses fictional technology to catch criminals. Those same shows generally condition us to believe that it’s ok for law enforcement to bend/break the rules in pursuit of the baddies.