Skip to main content

Smartphones help catch a terror suspect

By Gary Kessler, Special to CNN
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Wed April 24, 2013
People take photos at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
People take photos at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gary Kessler: Boston bombing used public's photos, videos at unprecedented rate
  • Criminal cases will rely more on public as thousands take pictures and videos, he says
  • Unmindful of privacy, he says, a community worked together for a greater good
  • Kessler: Crowdsourcing in criminal investigation will happen more and more

Editor's note: Gary C. Kessler is an associate professor of homeland security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, teaching cybersecurity and digital forensics, and president of Gary Kessler Associates, a mobile device forensics and cybersecurity practice, training and consulting company. Kessler is a member of the North Florida and Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces.

(CNN) -- The Boston Marathon bombing investigation made use of crowdsourcing to collect photos and video from cell phones and surveillance cameras at an unprecedented level. These pictures were made public a little more than 72 hours after the explosions and the second suspect was arrested 29 hours later.

Forensics is the use of scientific or technical information to answer questions in a court of law. Digital forensics is the branch that focuses on the identification, acquisition and analysis of information found on digital devices: computers, cell phones, digital cameras or any computer-based system.

The concept of law enforcement posting photos of wanted individuals in a public place and asking for assistance is hardly new; walk into any post office and you will still see the FBI Most Wanted poster. Why the post office? Because it used to be the social center of a town, a place where the government and the people regularly came together.

Gary Kessler
Gary Kessler

Fast forward to 2013 and we have thousands of people taking pictures and videos of what everyone expected to be an every day event. Law enforcement agencies were able to use these images to observe the comings and goings of hundreds of people at a certain site at a certain time in order to detect a pattern of behavior with which to identify the two suspects. And most of this imagery came from private citizens.

Personal computers have been around for nearly 30 years. The Internet has been commercially available for 20 years. Mobile phones have been pervasive for more than 10 years and smartphones, in particular, for more than five. Computers, networks and cell phones have increasingly become the record keeper, instrument or target of criminal activity over the last few decades.

Smartphones are everywhere and offer the equivalent of a portable Internet terminal. Not only do cell phones contain a phone book, call history and text messages, but also Web browser history, email, Global Positioning System and other location information. And surprisingly high-quality pictures and video.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



All of this information will be of value to investigators. They will want to know who the suspects might have been communicating with in the immediate aftermath of the bombings and, again, in the aftermath of their pictures being posted in the media. The larger investigation will undoubtedly examine their text and email messages, social media postings, Web sites visited and calls made over the last few months and years. This digital forensic evidence will help piece together patterns of behavior that could provide insights into the suspects' thoughts and deeds, and even provide new leads.

What does this mean for privacy rights? Consider that when a municipality wants to put up a new camera at an intersection, or purchase a drone, there is often a public outcry. Is the camera an invasion of privacy? Where will it be looking? How will the government use the data? How long will the data be kept? Will it be used to track my movements? At some level, these are good and important questions because this kind of discourse is necessary to frame our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Yet, in Boston, a lot of the images came not from public-sector cameras but from private-sector cameras: our fellow citizens. Fellow citizens who voluntarily shared their information so that law enforcement could do its job.

Were these people violating the rights of others by sharing their pictures? Well, no, considering that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect us against a tyrannical government rather than from each other. Indeed, it is not clear that the government could have compelled these citizens to turn over their pictures just in case they might be useful; imagine persuading a judge to sign a search warrant on such pure speculation.

Neighbor photographs Boston shootout
The week that changed Boston forever

Yet, citizens stepped forward to offer their help, a clear sign of a community willing to work together for a greater good and one that does not distrust the government.

Although some might claim that these people were surrendering their rights for an element of security, it was the same instinct that made some people run toward the carnage so that they could provide assistance and comfort to friends, family and strangers. They were not surrendering their rights when they helped law enforcement but were empowering themselves as a community.

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly offer citizens a right of privacy, although many court decisions certainly support such an ideal. Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis is well known for his observation, "The right to be left alone -- the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people."

Your personal privacy has more to fear from the likes of Facebook and Google than from the government. Commercial entities such as social media sites offer free services and yet make money. How?

We, our information, have become their commodity. They have more money, motivation and resources to use our collected information for their own purposes than the government does. We, as users of social media, self-exploit; we post our information voluntarily. Yet, once posted, we usually lose exclusive ownership of the information and always lose control over it.

Although the use of the crowdsourcing metaphor may be new as it applies to a criminal investigation, it is almost certain we will see more of this in the future. And it is sure to renew questions about how we all are invading each other's privacy and personal space.

It also points to the incredible resiliency of the U.S. Constitution and its ability to guide us in a modern era, yet why it needs constant interpretation. As technologies evolve that the Founders could not have possibly anticipated -- from fully automatic weapons and thermal imagers to satellites and digital technologies -- we have to figure out how to balance our rights as individuals and needs as a society.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary Kessler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT