Skip to main content

Smartphones help catch a terror suspect

By Gary Kessler, Special to CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
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.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
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.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
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
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
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
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
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.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
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.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
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
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
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
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
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
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
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?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
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
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT