It was announced yesterday that after an intense manhunt, a prolonged shootout, and the death of an MIT police officer, that the second and final suspect in the Boston bombing was finally captured. Identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, the eldest brother was killed during the shoot out in Watertown and the latter who was captured while in hiding under an overtunred boat in a nearby residence.
Naturally, there are still many questions about the two brothers when it comes to their motives and whether or not they had any help in the commission of this crime. But in the meantime, one can’t help but acknowledge the swiftness with which the suspects were identified and the case resolved. Considering the fact that the police had no leads and no one had come forward to take credit, the fact that the men responsible were captured and killed within four days is nothing short of astounding.
So compared to past instances of terrorist acts – where the incident took place in a mass gathering and the perpetrators were mixed in with the crowd – what was different here? For one, the sheer amount of information that was provided by people who were on the scene. From torrents of photography to cell-tower information to locals’ memories, the police, FBI, and other investigators opened their investigation to spectator surveillance in a way like never before.
And in return, they received a mountain of data, which surprisingly proved quite helpful. Between the images submitted to the police from those who took pictures and video with their smartphones, PDAs and video cameras, and tips provided via Twitter and other social media, the police were quickly able to determine who the likely suspects were and how the bombing took place. After making their findings public, the suspects then fled, and committed the monumentally stupid mistake of drawing attention to themselves.
All this represented a modern twist on the age-old policy where law enforcement agencies consider the public’s eyes and ears as the crucial investigative asset. Just like with all cases, authorities opened their inquiry to account for what people saw and heard. The only real difference was that this time around, the Internet rapidly compressed the time it took for tips to arrive and get analyzed.
Mike Rolince, a retired FBI special agent who set up Boston’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, recalls a time in the 90’s when the FBI was much more reticent about accepting information from the public and local police:
If law enforcement didn’t share any information — [as with bombers] Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — if your intel is shared with no one, that is the consummate investigative challenge.
However, he acknowledges that things have since changed:
The great advantage here is the number of cameras out there. Without the cameras, I don’t know where we are.
But of course, those cameras went way beyond the surveillance cameras that were in place downtown. They included every mobile camera in the hands of every person who happened to bring one. All of the information thus provided allowed the FBI and local police to turn a crime scene trampled by thousands and no leads into a solid case against two suspects and an active manhunt that led to their death and capture in four days time.
This was a victory for not only modern technology but the very democratic powers it is making possible. Much like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, DIY research and biohacking, public surveillance is something which could very well turn the tables on terrorism. It could also go a long way to undermining fears about a surveillance-based Big Brother state, ushering in instead an era of public-government cooperation that provides for the common good.
Might sound a bit utopian, but it is a first and represents a big victory for all those who were fighting on the side of good in the midst of a heinous act of evil.