Cameras, software used in Boston case prompt surveillance concerns

High-tech privacy fears grow

The Washington Post, AP

Five days of harrowing footage from Boston allowed a voracious nation to experience Monday’s bombings and their aftermath almost as the events were happening, with ever-present cameras at once documenting history and pushing it relentlessly forward.

After investigators broadcast photos of the two men wanted in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing, queries from viewers started cascading in — 300,000 hits a minute that overwhelmed the FBI’s website.

It marked a key turning point in a search that, for all the intensity of its first 72 hours, had failed to locate the suspects. Experts say it instantly turned up already intense pressure on the two men to flee — increasing the chances they would make mistakes that would lead to their exposure.

The decision to ask the public for help also was something of a gamble. Although releasing the photos greatly increased the odds the two men would be recognized and turned in, it also significantly upped the chances they would try to vanish or commit more mayhem.

Technological shifts are likely to accelerate in the years ahead as police, corporations and even private citizens gain access to unprecedented troves of video imagery and the tools to analyze them.

Advances in computing power and analytical software have allowed for individuals to be identified and tracked as never before — especially when that information is combined with the location data emitted by most cellphones.

The role of these technologies in the Boston investigation is unclear, but law enforcement experts say that video surveillance and analysis is especially valuable in cases such as this, with an unexpected attack and no obvious suspects at first. The process of winnowing happened with remarkable speed, moving in just days from a mountain of unsorted video to blurry images of potential suspects and then to pictures crisp enough to drive a manhunt.

For those seeking to protect privacy in the digital age, however, the news is not all good. Computer analysis of the faces of those who apply for driver’s licenses, passports or entry visas already has created vast databases that some law enforcement officials are eager to use on a routine basis, for what amounts to digitized lineups of tens of millions of people.

The debate over how to balance the needs of investigators with the rights of private citizens remains unsettled. Civil libertarians worry that data gathered for one investigation will inevitably be used for other purposes, allowing a gradual slide into perpetual surveillance of private citizens.

There are so many video cameras operated by so many entities, public and private, that no one has a credible count of how many are in use, though estimates in lower Manhattan alone top 3,000, said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Somebody who lives and works in that area could be surveilled in almost everything they do,” she said. “That is a society that most of us do not want to live in.”

Analyzing video has been key to bombing investigations worldwide and was especially critical in unraveling the Islamist bombings in July 2005 in London, perhaps the city with the world’s most extensive network of video surveillance.

Cameras were crucial as long ago as April 1999, when a bomb injured dozens of people at a market in Brixton, south London, said Hugh Orde, a top police official during the investigation. “We had, from a detective point of view, a disaster,” he recalled.

But by reviewing surveillance videos, police identified a man wearing a cap low on his head and carrying a bag. In another clip, the bag was gone. The pictures broke open the case and led to an arrest.

Facial recognition technology used by the FBI was first developed during the war in Iraq to search for suspects in the aftermath of bombings, which typically featured crude, handmade explosives resembling those used in Boston.

“This is eerily similar to Iraq,” said James Albers, senior vice president for government operations for MorphoTrust USA, which is based in Billerica, Massachusetts and makes facial recognition software for the FBI. Its development is part of a $1 billion push for a new generation of technology that eventually will include recognition of a person’s irises and palm prints on top of traditional fingerprints.

Facebook and Google also have extensive facial recognition data, gathered when users upload photos. Police typically need a search warrant for a particular suspect to access that information.

The facial recognition software used by the FBI can lift shadows, sharpen blurry pictures and create 3-D images from flat ones, Albers said. It also analyzes each face to develop a unique “template” based on the shape, skin texture and distances among features.

Still, facial recognition software remains imperfect. In most cases, the human brain is more adept at identifying individual faces, experts say. Computers are most valuable when seeking to compare an image with many possible matches, such as in a database.