Use of Technology in the Boston Bombings

Technology Boston Bombings

The Use of Technology in the Boston Bombings Investigations

The Boston Marathon bombing incident was an act of terror that took place on April 15th, 2013 during the annual Boston Marathon. During the event, bombs were positioned in proximity to the race’s finish line. The bombs killed two individuals and injured over two hundred fifty others would where close by. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were the primary suspects in the case that were identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). A day after the bombings a massive manhunt ensued to find the individuals. However, one of the interesting aspects about the case is how the FBI was able to identify the suspects. An unprecedented amount of digital data was available for use and the FBI and other organizations utilized crowdsourcing techniques to help funnel through the data.

The advent of digital technologies coupled with the falling costs of storage capabilities has led to a situation in which massive amounts of digital data can be generated at any given time. The power of crowds can be harnessed to help sift through troves of data to work towards a common objective. Crowdsourcing has been used in a wide array of different situations to complete many unrelated tasks that require more human resources than any one person, or even one team, could provide. For instance, a crowd can provide enough manpower to accomplish a goal in hours that an individual could not complete in many years. The work is divided up and if enough people are involved then the total contribution can reach staggering proportions. This analysis will consider all of the available technologies and opportunities that the FBI had at their disposal during the Boston Bombing and discuss how these technologies were used to apprehend the suspects and what ethical and legal implications may be relevant to this case.

Closed Circuit Television

Boston had a network of closed circuit surveillance cameras in place during the Boston Bombings. The camera network was able to capture images of the suspects that were described as “grainy” or being of a low resolution. Many major U.S. cities have implemented surveillance technologies to help patrol urban areas. These cameras increase the likelihood that a suspect will be caught on camera, however, at the same time, these technologies can create a massive amount of footage that is so enormous that it can be of little use. However, new advancements in facial recognition software and other technologies are increasing the ability for law enforcement officers to make more efficient use of the data being collected (Kelly, 2013 ).

Figure 1 – CCTV Footage of the Suspects (Kelly, 2013 )

Although the use of new technologies may be promising for law enforcement, it also creates a wide range of privacy concerns. The debate between national security and individual liberties, especially privacy, has reached new proportions as technology has increased the ability for the state to create mass surveillance programs. Terrorist events such as those that occurred on September 11th, 2001, have increase the government’s use of different surveillance and monitoring activities through the Patriot Act and other legislations. After the tragedy that occurred on 9/11, the balance between privacy, individual liberties, and security was definitely tilted towards security.

The arguments in defense of curtailing various certain civil liberties were made in order try to prevent future acts of terrorism in the U.S. Although many countries took similar actions; most were not as comprehensive as some of the policies that the U.S. implemented. Edward Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency through subcontractor Booz Allen in the NSA’s Oahu office, alerted the world to the extent of the surveillance measures being conducted in the U.S. After Snowden fled to Hong Kong, China, newspapers began printing the documents that he had leaked to them, many of them detailing invasive spying practices against American citizens (Bio, 2014). Snowden was quoted as stating that his motivation stemmed from the following statement:

“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

Snowden’s, and others, leaks about the level of surveillance being conducted on the internet and through all communication mediums, coupled with the fact that CCTV cameras are now being used with facial recognition has sparked a national debate about the balance between privacy and security. Technology has allowed society to intrusively look into the lives of everyday citizens. However, many question the effectiveness of these systems. For example, London has one of the most advanced CCTV systems in the world. However, in 2008, only one crime was solved for every 1,000 cameras, according to the city’s police. CCTV cameras across Britain also cost authorities nearly $800 million over the past four years, according to civil liberties group Big Brother Watch (Kelly, 2013 ). If the surveillance systems are not effective in practice, then this would definitely tip the scales back towards the privacy position in the balancing act.


It has been estimated that each day people around the world spend 600 years collectively playing Angry Birds. The power of processing in crowds is immense and this collective effort could potentially be turned to more rewarding work and there are many examples of people trying to do exactly that. Sebastian Seunga professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is attempting to harness the power of a crowd to build a “connectome” which is a map of the vast number of connections in the brain that underlie vision, memory, and disease (Johnson, 2012). The researchers have designed a game that lets players help map the brain by filling in colors that help create a map of the neural processes in the brain. The individuals who play the game are actually helping to create a data map of different slices of a brain image that have been taken with an electron microscope. In many cases there is no substitute for human perception. For example, it has been estimated that completing this work even with a computer program to assist would take one individual a thousand years to complete the map of the brain.

Crowdsourcing was definitely one of the tools that was implemented in the wake of the Boston Bombings as well. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, the FBI utilized the power of crowds to help them dissect the massive amount of data that was available. “There has to be hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs, videos, and other observations that were made down at that finish line yesterday,” -Timothy Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said at a press conference (Powers, 2013). Many of the individual citizens that were present that day built websites that allowed them to collaborate, post, and analyze all of the digital data that was collected about the people in attendance.

Reddit’s “Find Boston Bombers” forum had more than 1,700 users, who have highlighted suspicious persons and objects through collected photographs and videos and on, dozens have uploaded snapshots of the crowd close to the 26-mile marker (Powers, 2013). The users could upload their private videos and then add annotations to show what they considered as being a potentially suspicious person or image. Thousands of potential leads were generated this way. However, one of the main problems is that people would identify people that were really not that suspicious. When the general population begins to investigate a crime on their own, it is often the case that they lack the training necessary to identify activity that could be considered truly suspicious. As a result, the crowds’ collection of data was immense and difficult to sift through. It is unclear if crowdsourcing will be an effective investigation technique for any future incidents.

However, coordinating with the public was also listed among the best practices in the after action report. There were four press conferences held as the unified command center (UCC) decided early on that communications with the public was a critical success factor in mitigating the effects of the terrorism incident. The report states (Boston, 2014):

“The leadership of the organizations involved in incident response realized the importance of frequent and coordinated communications with the media and the general public and reached a consensus on the goal of providing information from key city and state leadership as often as possible. Key leaders worked together within the UCC to craft clear, concise, unified messages they could deliver to the public and the media regarding the incident, its impacts, and measures that were being taken in the aftermath.”

The public was also sent notifications on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The leaders at the UCC asked citizens to submit any photos or videos that were privately collected before, during, or after the event and it was estimated that over eight thousand people called the city’s call center with tips or related questions.

During the prosecution of the surviving perpetrator, the videos played a key role in the prosecution. The jurors were shown several videos of the incident that were primarily collected from the CCTV systems that were present at the event. The news coverage of the trial focused on the video evidence (O’Neill, 2015):

“On Monday, the jury saw a video of the moment a bomb exploded and disemboweled an 8-year-old boy and ripped the leg off his sister. The blast killed a 23-year-old graduate student from China. The jurors heard more horror from April 15, 2013. At one point, prosecutors played a video that showed the scene after a bomb exploded — blood and injured victims everywhere and the sounds of a child howling. His mother lost her leg.”

The video collected about the incident not only played a role in identifying the suspects, but also in the conviction. The video was used to gain a death sentence for the act of terror related to the Boston Bombing.


The Boston Bombing clearly illustrates how new technologies can assist in the apprehension of criminals and terrorists. It also has illustrated the potential for crowdsourcing techniques to be used in instances in which a crowd is present in an incident. The public, much on their own accord, collaborated to attempt to identify suspicious activity. At the same time however, there are serious questions about the effectiveness of mass surveillance techniques and their invasion on civil liberties. The technologies may become more effective when facial recognition software develops further. However, nearly every aspect of our lives is now being monitored in some way which leaves many to question whether the security benefits outweigh the privacy concerns.


Bio. (2014, April 3). Edward Snowden Biography. Retrieved April 3, 2014, from Bio:

Boston, C. o. (2014). After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Boston.

Johnson, C. (2012, July 16). Scientist’s game helps map the brain. Retrieved from The Boston Globe:

Kelly, H. (2013, April 26). After Boston: The pros and cons of surveillance cameras. Retrieved from CNN:

O’Neill, A. (2015, April 7). Boston bombing trial: Jurors send out questions during deliberations. Retrieved from CNN:

Powers, M. (2013, April 17). On Internet, thousands sift through Marathon photos for clues. Retrieved from The Boston Globe:

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