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Intelligence gathering: Does crowdsourcing help law enforcement?

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Originally published on Technorati

Last year’s arrest of the Boston marathon bombing suspect was the result of a successful investigation in which law enforcement relied on crowdsourced intelligence gathering. Officials arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after he and his accomplish shot one MIT police officer dead and left an MBTA Transit Police officer wounded. Tsarnaev’s elder brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died early Friday morning after a gunfight with police.

Immediately after Monday’s blasts, hundreds of spectators provided police and security personnel with thousands of photos and videos taken from their smartphones. The multimedia collage led to a comprehensive view of the crime scene from every conceivable angle. Thousands of images were posted online on Facebook and Twitter minutes after the attack that killed three and injured more than 150 people took place.

The Boston investigation was led by FBI special agent in charge Richard DesLauriers who used the principles of crowdsourcing to rapidly find clues. Due to the fast turnaround in the collection of evidence, the Tsarnaev brothers were tracked within three days of the crime.

Some experts say the investigative approach to the Boston marathon bombings involved an innovative approach that could be repeated in future major incidents. Beginning on Monday, authorities urged the general public to provide images and videos of the terrorist attack.

Given the decentralized nature of the crowdsourced effort, citizens were given the contact information of local police, Homeland Security, and the FBI. Special agents used crowdsourcing technology to sift through the mass amounts of data pouring in from official channels, the media, phone apps, and social networking sites. A software called Crowd Optic determined the most popular images around the time of the bombing. Smart metadata embedded in cellphone images helped to pinpoint the exact geo-locations of thousands of snapshots. The clues helped investigators to identify critical leads near ground zero.

Within 72 hours, officials released surveillance photos of the two suspects who carried large, dark backpacks near the bombing area. Soon after, images of the suspects were distributed on television and online.

It should be noted that criminal investigators often keep the public in the dark during an ongoing investigation. The way in which the Boston bombing was handled could lead to law enforcement across the country rethink how it does business.

Digital cameras and smartphones have turned consumers into citizen journalists and amateur broadcasters. A collage of crowdsourced intelligence provides analysts with a 360-degree view of the crime scene. Hundreds of amateur footage also augment the thousands of CCTV cameras already embedded in Boston shops, traffic stops, and private premises.

However, there are limits to a crowdsourced investigation. The data submitted must still be analyzed and interpreted by competent professionals. A crowdsourced approach should not lead to a witch hunt or a desire for vigilante justice by an angry mob. Yet, it appears that the submission of thousands of potential clues may lead to a much faster assessment of evidence so long as police agencies have the sufficient manpower and technology to aid in the investigation.

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