The Modern Tool In Terror Investigations: Your Phone

The April 15 attack at the Boston Marathon offered law enforcement officials a glimpse at the good, the bad, and the social that comes with a criminal investigation in the iPhone, Twitter, YouTube era.

In the chaotic minutes and hours following the Boston Marathon attack yesterday, Cheryl Fiandaca of the Boston Police Department made an unusual request. Fiandaca, the police department's social media director, issued an official request for anyone with video of the finish line to contact Boston Police. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will be handling the Boston attack, but the Boston Police request to the public still stands.

Two bombs went off yards from the marathon's finish line, and Boston police reportedly hunted feverishly for other explosive devices that were later found nearby. The unknown terrorist or terrorists behind the Boston attacks (note: President Obama, as of this writing, has not yet called the event an act of "terrorism"; others in the administration have; UPDATE: Obama is now calling it "terrorism") successfully carried off an attack in an environment swarming with both conventional media and the omnipresent phone cameras of the contemporary age.

Related: Homeland Security Warned In 2010 Of Pressure Cooker Bombs Like Those In Boston Marathon Explosions

One of the biggest changes in the post-millennial world is the ubiquity of phone cameras. Between 2005 and 2013, the easy availability (and, it needs to be said, ease of use) of camera-enabled phones has made them commonplace worldwide. This, in turn, has inspired social shifts that go unnoted outside the realm of stand-up comedy routines and academia. Phones are now held up high at sporting events and at concerts. Breaking news events are a sea of phones held aloft in the air as lawyers, secretaries, delivery people, and students turn themselves into journalists for 10 or 15 minutes to record the goings-on and upload them to Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook. (YouTube, in fact, launched a Spotlight page in the attack's aftermath.) Once people realized that they had cameras which could instantly transmit pictures or short films to all of their friends—or indeed, to the entire world—culture shifted, just a little.

For law enforcement, access to dozens of on-the-ground videos from a major terrorist attack serves as a valuable forensic tool. Ordinary people, going about their business on a day which serves as a state holiday in Massachusetts, meant to record the atmosphere and excitement at the most prestigious marathon in the world. What they ended up doing was to record an immensely complicated and bloody crime scene from multiple angles and to create a massive secondary pool of video that supplemented both governmental video-based anti-terrorism and anti-crime systems and CCTV systems mounted on nearby stores. Some of these videos captured the explosion as it happened and make for difficult viewing.

Steve Silva, a senior sports producer at Boston.com, was recording a conventional finish line video and captured one of the explosions on camera. The resulting video quickly spread around the Internet and gives a firsthand look at the destruction.

Other videos were filmed by folks at the finish line who had nothing to do with the media, and were simply taking out their phones or iPads for fun when the attack occurred. They contributed greatly to the potential pool of information for the Boston Police Department and other investigators.

Bystanders also posted hundreds of still photographs to Instagram, Imgur, Twitter, and Facebook. Many of these are graphic depictions of attack victims with their legs blown off which can easily be found on social media. Fast Company has opted not to include these in this article. Several photographers working on Flickr created noteworthy galleries of the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks. Ken Shinokubo and Arturo Gossage both photographed the attack scene and made their pictures accessible through Flickr. In the comments to one (safe-for-work) picture of bomb victims being treated by Boston police, Gossage wrote "The sidewalks they just came from were blood covered. I didn't photograph them. It didn't seem right to."

But while social media can shed lights on breaking news events and provide valuable forensic information, it can also decontextualize and mislead. Recently, a photo montage comparing crowds in St. Peter's Square in 2005 and 2013 went viral after NBC News posted them on Instagram. The pictures purport to show the difference between the election of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis; in the 2005 pictures, only a handful of camera phones can be seen while 2013 is a sea of iPhones, Androids, and iPads.

The Washington Post's Nick Kirkpatrick and Emi Kolawole, however, did some digging and found that the viral pictures were taken out of context. While the 2013 photograph was taken during the announcement of Francis' election, the 2005 photograph was of Pope John Paul's funeral. More importantly, it wasn't taken in St. Peter's Square—the photograph was taken half a mile away on the Via Della Conciliazione during the funeral procession. Unlike in 2013, there was no one speaking from a balcony or any one event for bystanders to photograph.

For all the talk of citizen journalism and social media's muckraking prowess, it is important to note that no formal verification or validation system exists for photographs, videos, and tweets of breaking news stories. When news stories such as the Hudson River plane crash and Hurricane Sandy hit, social media spread rumors and innuendos like those of a troll who convinced many of a total blackout in Manhattan during Sandy. This is bad enough but in situations where law enforcement, media, and outside observers have to use citizen journalist-collected assets—such as in the Syrian Civil War—the effect is confusing at best, nightmarish at worst.

In the case of the Syrian Civil War, for instance, anti-government rebels, Syrian exiles, and the Syrian government routinely lie and decontextualize video and photographs in hopes of spinning media coverage and global sympathies in their favor. The idea behind this is the theory that time-strapped journalists will use social media-gathered content to their stories and accept the descriptions given at face value, and that investigators at non-governmental organizations will be forced to use social media content for lack of alternatives. Among others, PBS, Storyful, and the Associated Press are struggling with the question of how to verify breaking news on social media.

This is one reason why law enforcement are focusing on video rather than still photographs. It is much harder to decontextualize videos than photographs. The police and FBI are acting wisely; they're using bystander-generated context as a secondary source for an ongoing terrorism investigation. They also have the benefit of working on a case with far fewer spin-focused actors than the Syrian Civil War. But the end goal for law enforcement is essentially a newfangled problem: How to conduct an investigation into a very public criminal act in the age of YouTube.

More On The Boston Marathon Bombings

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Why Your Phone Doesn't Work During Disasters—And How To Fix It

Homeland Security Warned In 2004, 2010 Of Pressure Cooker Bombs Like Those In Boston Marathon Explosions

[Top Image: Flickr user smi23le-KRON4]

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