Facial Recognition Technology Didn’t Help The Search For The Boston Bombers, Says Police Chief

Edward Davis says that the identification system used by the city “came up empty.” The breakthrough came as a result of a mixture of citizen journalism, police legwork, and technology–one agent watched the same video clip 400 times.

Facial Recognition Technology Didn’t Help The Search For The Boston Bombers, Says Police Chief

The police investigation into last week’s Boston Marathon bombing, and the subsequent manhunt, was not helped by facial recognition technology, the city’s police chief has said, despite the fact that images of both suspects exist on the city’s databases.


Although technology was a factor, Edward Davis said that the Tsarnaev brothers were identified by a mixture of citizen journalism, police work, and video evidence–although the sheer weight of photos and videos meant that it “almost became a management problem, there was so much of it.” Only landlines were used, as the cellphone networks were unreliable, and satellite phones only worked if the caller was next to a window.

The Washington Post has a long piece on the investigation that is well worth a read. The police were aware of the importance of video footage following the London bombings of July 2005, when the suspects were identified five days after the attacks.

But the real breakthrough came from a victim of last Monday’s atrocity, Jeffrey Bauman, who came round from surgery and wrote on a piece of paper, “Bag. Saw the guy. Looked right at me.”

Commissioner Davis’s admission about his force’s facial recognition technology throws up a big question: Is it worth investing in such a system when most surveillance footage comes from either a grainy photo or video still? The technology cannot match a blurred image to a high-quality image such as you’d find on official ID.

What are your views? Is increased surveillance and facial recognition technology part and parcel for greater security against attacks like last week’s? Or do you think that it’s a waste of money and something different should be done? But what? Please feel free to use the comments system below.

[Image by Flickr user hahatango. Thumbnail image by Flickr user thebudman623]

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.