Update: Massive citizen smartphone photo and video probe underway into Boston bombings

FBI will process photos and videos and 'go through every frame' to seek evidence, officials say

Following the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday, investigators mounted a massive investigation that includes close scrutiny of digital photos and videos taken about the time of the blasts from citizen smartphones and area surveillance cameras.

"It's our intent to go through every frame of every video we have," said Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis told reporters in a Tuesday morning news conference in Boston.

A fixed camera at IDG's Boston offices captured the moment an explosion rocked the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The camera shakes slightly and then smoke billows into view at the 14-second mark.

FBI officials have set up a hot line at 1-800-Call-FBI to let investigators know of images taken in the area. The FBI has posted a statement saying "no piece of information or detail is too small" to report.

FBI Special Agent Rich DesLauriers said "assistance from the public remains critical" to the investigation. He added that the FBI had received "voluminous tips" in the first 18 hours after the bombings that killed three and injured 173 others.

The digital videos and photos will be processed at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. In addition to the images and videos received from citizens, the agency will study the output from surveillance cameras located at stores and businesses in a 12-block area near the Marathon finish line where the two blasts occurred about 2:50 p.m. Monday.

Investigators said that citizen photos and videos need not be only from the finish line area, and can be from before and after the blasts.

Davis said the crime scene under investigation extends for 12 blocks in the Back Bay area of Boston. "It's the most complex crime scene in [Boston police] history," he said.

Analysts said the extent of the digital investigation will be vast, given the number of surveillance cameras and people with smartphones.

An image of a man on a nearby Boston rooftop about the time of the bombings has gone viral. The FBI has refused to comment on the image.

The FBI is heading up a joint task force that includes city and state police from Massachusetts, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency and others.

The FBI and police are so eager to get smartphone images related to the bombing that Massachusetts State Police detectives were asking airline passengers checking in for flights at Logan Airport on Tuesday whether they might have videos or photos from the event.

Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC, said he was asked for any images he might have by three state police at the security gates at Logan while he was on his way to Miami Tuesday morning.

"They were asking, 'Was anybody there [who] had any images,'" said Stofega, who did not have any photos. But as a mobile analyst he said he's aware of police investigations that rely on facial recognition and related software to search through citizen smartphone videos.

"There's plenty of software that can sort through images like that and police can get usable intelligence with it," Stofega said, noting that people don't realize what they have on their devices and what's useful.

"This kind of investigation has been done before, but on a smaller scale," Stofega said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that the FBI faces a "truly massive challenge" to collect and process bombing-related images. He called it "on the order of what the National Security Agency has to contend with in monitoring worldwide communications."

While there are software tools galore to help with facial recognition and pattern recognition (such as a person or vehicle moving erratically or in an unusual direction from others), "it still comes down to having human eyes sort through probable or possible sources of interest," Gold said. "Despite our strides in video analysis and image processing, at the end of the day the systems we have in place are still childish in their abilities compared to humans."

Gold said it's also unclear how sophisticated the tools are and what processing power is being used by the FBI, although the National Security Agency has huge data centers that could be called into use. A terrorist act would merit the full force of the U.S. government's computing power.

The video search now facing the FBI "will take quite some time and use a lot of manpower," Gold said. "That's just a massive amount of data to view."

Gold said if one assumes 20% of the 50,000 or so spectators at the marathon were actually using their smartphone cameras, that could be as many as 10,000 individual videos and assorted pictures needing review -- and that's a conservative estimate.

"And not all will be great quality, and that's not even including the large number of video cameras on buildings in the area," he said.

Marathon bomb blast
The fireball in this image erupted as the second explosion occurred at Monday's Boston Marathon. (Image: Reuters / Dan Lampariello)

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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