After Boston: How Our Personal Devices are Changing Forensics

Alongside all of the other wrenching events associated with the Boston Marathon bombing is the indisputable reality that smartphone technology and social media have vastly changed the nature of forensics.

And, with help from tech volunteers, the marathon tragedy is giving this field a huge leap forward.

It wasn’t even an hour and a half after the blasts, while efforts were still being made to help the injured, before the Boston Police Department made an appeal—over Twitter—for video and photos of the finish line.

Quietly but surely, the ubiquitous smartphone “has changed investigative techniques,” says onetime FBI investigator Jarrad Wagner, now a professor of forensic science at Oklahoma State University. “It’s a game-changer.”

And no wonder. The technology we now carry around with us digitally records seemingly everything. It would take eight years to watch the videos posted to YouTube in a single day. Some 250 million photos are updated every day to Facebook, and there are an average of 200 million daily tweets.

“Just imagine how much the way you live has changed now, versus before we had cell phones,” Wagner says.

Further advances in technology, like Google Glass and wearable computing, are ahead.

“Even well before digital technology, the police would always ask for witnesses,” says Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth. “This is a modern-day, digital version of that, with a much better memory.”

Already, volunteer software engineers in Boston and from around the country have created a website to streamline the process of collecting data after the FBI’s email server was unable to accept all of the thousands of images offered up by witnesses to the marathon bombing.

The new site, whose code the volunteers said would be open source, makes it easy to upload files from a smartphone, and can recognize other important data such as time stamps and geo tracking.

It’s a first step toward what Farid says could ultimately be a process in which images might be seamlessly arranged in exact order of time and location, letting investigators “walk” through a crime scene.

With further technological advances that may be hastened by the high profile of the marathon investigation, Farid says, “suddenly you could re-create an event such as this with fairly fine granularity.”

There are almost no legal restrictions on taking photographs in public places, but there are privacy concerns about all these prying eyes. While, at the marathon bombings, they were used to identify inconceivably bad guys, there are civil-liberties concerns that they might also be used to spy on good guys.

During the riots that followed the Stanley Cup playoffs in Vancouver in 2011, for example, police collected reams of digital photos and videos, posted them online, and asked the public to inform on the rioters.

Nearly 90 percent of 800 law-enforcement agencies surveyed that year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police used social media for investigations or other purposes.

The field is still evolving. Smartphones can already recognize which part of an image is a face. Technology can also help them look for things like backpacks with particular types of straps, patterns, and logos.

But few places have as many people taking photos and videos as the finish line of an international marathon. “This was an unusual confluence of events,” says Farid, who lived in Boston as an MIT postdoc and remembers watching the marathon.

Nor is all the data necessarily helpful.

“The problem with a crowd,” he says, “is that the signal-to-noise ratio is really crappy.”

Jon Marcus, a lifelong Bostonian who has run the Boston Marathon, was in the press room at the finish line and has been covering the bombings.

Photo credit: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

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