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They're watching: why city-wide surveillance failed to stop the Boston bombing

"If everyone becomes a suspect, then nobody is a suspect."

All day Sunday, police directed traffic around a blocked-off section of Boylston Street in downtown Boston where bombs had gone off nearly a week earlier, killing three and wounding hundreds. A makeshift memorial had been set up to honor the dead with personal messages and flowers, and old running shoes hung from metal barricades. Similar makeshift memorials were set up in suburbs outside the city proper, at least one designed in the dried blood of a dead suspect.

About a mile northwest from Boston’s ground zero, across the Charles River in Cambridge, a small but notable memorial had been set up. This one lay on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus, on a concrete walkway beside MIT’s Ray and Maria Stata Center. Famous for its Frank Gehry-designed architecture, Stata is all kitty-cornered frames and weirdly metallic boxes, like something out of a futuristic claymation video or Pee-wee’s Playhouse. This memorial seemed out of place. It was set up to honor an MIT police officer, Sean Collier, who had been shot and killed here while on duty, allegedly by the brothers suspected of carrying out the bombings downtown days earlier.

At MIT, as the sun shined brightly in a cloudless sky in the mid-afternoon on Sunday, a man named Robert Burke, who runs a small business video production company out of a Boston suburb, sat with a camera pointed at a pile of T-shirts, flowers, teddy bears, and candles. His complaint, like the complaints of many others this past week, was with the media establishment that had descended on his hometown first for the Boston Marathon, then for the aftermath of a tragedy, without much context.

“All these media people in town this week, and none of them have the real story,” he told me in a thick Boston accent. “Well, I’ll tell you the real story here: two terrorists assassinated a good cop.”

If the Boston bombings told us anything, it’s first that everyone has his own story. And second, it’s that cameras such as Burke’s — both those lodged in people’s hands and those installed by government agencies on buildings and roads — can allow everyone’s own story to do as much harm as it can good.

Too many theories

What we know so far — what we can really verify — is that the FBI charged 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the lone surviving suspect, for detonating two improvised bombs with his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan. We know five people died, including Tamerlan, in related events. Nearly 300 were injured. That’s all verifiable.

But there are many unanswered questions.

Just one example: when Collier, the MIT police officer, was shot on Thursday evening a little after 10:30PM, the circumstances of his murder were odd. This was during the post-bombing manhunt, 80 hours or so after the marathon ended prematurely. The officer was killed in his car, which meant he hadn’t attempted to chase anyone on foot. If we accept FBI allegations that the Tsarnaevs were involved in that shooting, we know they didn’t take the officer’s police car anywhere. And they didn’t rob him. So was it simply anger? Was he shot because he was a cop in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was something else afoot?

A conspiracy theory — and again, it’s just one associated with this case — is that the Tsarnaevs had sought to toss one of their improvised explosives into MIT’s “little nuclear reactor” near the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and Vassar Ave. Officer Collier had stumbled upon their plot, the theory goes, and so he had to die.


Like many of the theories floating around Boston right now, chances are that’s not what happened. What the MIT shooting theory represents is just one example of a grassy knoll, second shooter-type guess offered mere days after the event took place. And again, that’s just one theory, from one event. Alex Jones offered another. He said the Tsarnaevs were patsies, set up by the FBI, the event a “false flag.” The Tsarnaevs' father is making similar claims. There are many more.

Everyone’s got their story, after all.

Especially now. The Boston Marathon bombing was the first time America has experienced a high profile terrorist attack in the age of omnipresent internet connectivity, in an environment of near-ubiquitous surveillance.

Reddit users responded immediately. The first post was a photo from Twitter that captured white smoke billowing skyward. That was followed by a live video feed of the finish line, and gruesome photographs of blood spilled on the street, people scrambling, police officers and EMS workers racing toward petrified people scattering for their lives. In turn, more videos, more news reports, and more tweets appeared by the second. The National Guard cleared Copley Square and established a 15-block crime scene. The events continued to unfold, live, across the internet, thanks to America’s conditioned response to anything that happens, good or bad: plastering it all over social media.

Not even law enforcement could resist the lure of the internet. Realizing they needed as much information as they could gather, and that the CCTV cameras near the finish line perhaps didn’t provide all the evidence they needed to identify a suspect, Boston police put out a call at around 4:30PM for video and images of the finish line. Shortly thereafter, when the FBI announced that it had no suspects, Reddit users had plenty of “leads”: suggestions about who the bombers may have been, as well as photos and videos that might lead police to the culprits. It wasn’t long before the Reddit approach to the investigation — guesses based on images and video floating around the web — would spill into the mainstream. On Friday, Boston police said they kept citizens abreast of updates via Twitter and governmental websites because the public speculation had reached dangerous levels.

On Wednesday, CNN’s John King erroneously reported that an arrest had been made, prompting both Fox News and the Associated Press to follow suit. On Thursday morning, the now infamous New York Post front cover was released. “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon,” it screamed in bold, capital letters. A photo of two local high school students sat beneath the headline. The students had no connection to the plot whatsoever.

“[E]veryone thinks they’re an investigator,” said Howard Levinson, president of Expert Security Consulting in Norton, Massachusetts. “I would suggest that people should just move on with their lives and be more careful. But I think we know that’s not going to happen.”

The tech used to capture the Boston suspects

by Adrianne Jeffries


    Early Friday morning, police engaged in an intense shootout with suspected bombers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26. The chase ended when the older brother jumped out of the car and ran toward police wearing a bomb on his chest; he was gunned to the ground. Using a portable scanner, an FBI agent took his fingerprints and ran them through the agency’s database, which quickly gave them the suspect’s name.

    The mobile fingerprint scanner came out in August 2011, according to the federal tech trade publication FCW, as part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. The database, called the Repository for Individuals of Special Concern (RISC), contains the prints of more than 2.5 million people.

    NGI is replacing the FBI’s old fingerprints database, adding the capability for “additional biometric data, such as facial and iris data,” GCN reported.

    This is also the system that failed to make a match based on facial recognition, even though both suspects were in the database: Tamerlan because of his previous brush with the FBI, and Dzhokhar because he had a Massachusetts drivers license.

    Cost: The NGI costs about $1 billion, according to the FBI.

  • ROBOTS (FBI, Mass and Boston police, Navy)

    Robots were used throughout the investigation. A robotic arm attached to a vehicle reportedly pulled the tarp off the boat to reveal the second suspect. The navy’s bomb squad also brought in at least one robot to defuse bombs and inspect suspicious items that could have been bombs, although the number and model have not been revealed.

    PackBot, a defense and security robot with multiple purposes include bomb disposal, was used to search the suspect’s car Friday morning.

    PackBots were also used for rescue after 9/11.

    Cost: While the price of a PackBot can vary depending on its configuration, the cost averages about $100,000, a representative from maker iRobot told The Verge.


    An infrared camera attached to a helicopter was used to confirm that a human form — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — was hiding inside a boat on Friday night.

    The infrared camera was made by Oregon-based FLIR (forward looking infrared) which makes government and commercial surveillance and security systems. The Massachusetts State Police department bought multiple cameras from the company’s Star Safire line, first in 2004 and most recently in 2010, according to FLIR. This camera is specifically designed for airborne surveillance and search-and-rescue, and includes a thermal camera, TV camera, laser range finder (which determines how far away target is), and navigation computer.

    This sensor can’t “see” through walls, roofs, or glass, but it was able to detect heat through the very thin tarp stretched over the top of the boat the suspect was hiding in.

    Cost: Around $500,000 each, and the Massachusetts State Police own “a few” of them, a FLIR representative told The Verge.

  • CCTVs

    Boston’s extensive CCTV network assisted in identifying the alleged bombers. In 2007, the ACLU found that 147 total cameras had been installed in Boston. A year later, that number increased to 183, and that number has grown as the city received additional federal grants for more cameras. There are now more than 500 cameras in the MBTA system.

    Cost: The total cost is difficult to say, as the city won’t release data on how many cameras are in place. However, the first round of installations, which took place before the 2004 Democratic Convention, cost upwards of $6 million dollars.

We got the bad guys

This is not how it was supposed to play out.

In the wake of September 11th, 2001, we have been constantly promised safety and security in exchange for submitting to increased surveillance. The grant application for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Homeland Security Grant Program — the principle program that helped bring all those surveillance cameras to Boston — is very clear on this. Millions of dollars were ultimately spent to prevent any “acts of terrorism and other catastrophic events” that might occur.

Boston’s CCTV infrastructure was installed in 2004, ostensibly to deter terrorists from attacking that year’s Democratic National Convention. It was paid for, according to a December 2008 Boston Globe report, as part of a $4.6 million federal grant from the US Department of Homeland Security. By the end of 2004, there were 59 cameras installed in Boston metro area. By 2007, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, there were 147.

Few in the Boston metro area questioned this program. The Globe report quoted a police official: “There was no debate in Boston.”

But debate did, in fact, occur in a suburb west of Boston called Brookline. With a population of about 60,000 people, Brookline is not a huge or particularly unusual place. But its local legislative arm threatened to reject federally provided CCTV cameras within its borders.

The ACLU of Massachusetts spoke out in the town’s favor.

“The overarching concern is what kind of society are we creating, where general police surveillance cameras are in operation,” an ACLU attorney told the Globe. “You cannot assume that we will always be a free society, and we are putting the structures in place that would allow a very different United States of America from the one we have lived in.”

But Brookline — much like the rest of Boston, much like the rest of the US, and much like cities worldwide — acquiesced. In 2009, they agreed to take the cameras. Brookline’s concerns — unique as they were — ended in compromise. It would take the CCTV cameras. But it would only keep them running from 10PM to 6AM.

Which is consistent. Concerns about privacy have a tendency to diminish in the face of fear.

Despite those concerns — and studies, and anecdotes, and journalism showing that CCTV cameras don’t deter crime — the ACLU estimates that more than 500 of the cameras have been installed in the greater Boston area.

But what have they done for Boston?

Most news outlets have focused on the bombings and the investigation. The results: first, we got the bad guys. And second, we got the bad guys because CCTV cameras allowed law enforcement agencies to find and hunt down two terror suspects.

But that was never the point of FEMA’s Homeland Security Grant Program. The main goal was to “protect against” and to prevent terrorist attacks in the first place.

The marathon bombings represented the first real test of that program.

And it failed.


View Shootings 4/19 MIT && Carjacking related to boston bombers in a larger map. Created by Sam Twining.

The trove

The capture of two suspected terrorists for killing four people with “weapons of mass destruction” was perhaps made easier with the use of cameras. But it was not worth what Boston gave up in privacy and funding over the past few years. And if you look at it in a certain light, it may have actually made Boston a much more dangerous place.

At the very least, all that surveillance will severely complicate a court battle that’s only just beginning.

Kelly Currie is a former assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District of New York where he was chief of the eastern district’s Violent Crimes and Terrorism Section. He tells me last week’s bombings, and the unbelievable amount of video and photo evidence collected, will set new standards for how criminal information is processed.

“The sheer scale of the data available is monumental,” he said. “And we don’t even know the extent of it yet” — the extent of the video and photos from nearly unlimited sources, the extent of the tips being filtered in more forms than ever before, and the extent of mistakes, misinformation, and conspiracy theories being broadcast in all directions.

The sheer scale of the data available is monumental, and we don't even know the extent of it yet

This is going to be a problem for the courts because there are limited precedents for how this scale of information can be processed. A 2011 Vancouver investigation offers a model, but last week’s bombings and investigation were different. First off, the events that lead to an arrest in this case are not discrete, Currie said. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of witnesses who may come forward about the bombings as well as the carjacking, the shooting on the MIT campus, and the events that lead to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev finally being captured. All of these people could potentially provide video and photo evidence. Not to mention footage from 500-plus CCTV cameras. And all that evidence needs to be assessed by prosecutors as well as the federal public defender's office, which will handle Dzhokhar’s defense.

That might be impossible.

Commentators such as Farhad Manjoo have argued that the Boston bombings confirm the need for expanded federal funding for CCTV coverage in places such as Boston. Of “all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism,” he wrote in Slate on Thursday, “installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice.” But that’s not a universal opinion. And some experts are saying the opposite.

The executive director of the ACLU in Boston, Carol Rose, is one of them.

“These terrible attacks confirm that surveillance doesn’t deter people from these kinds of serious crimes,” she said. “The Boston Marathon is about the most heavily surveilled event anyone could’ve targeted in Boston. And it didn’t deter anyone from setting off a bomb there.”

And while she admits that video evidence was involved in locating potential suspects in this case, it seems the best images provided to police were not provided by government-installed cameras but by cell phone photos taken by individuals.

She also suggested something darker: perhaps the network of cameras turned everyone in the city into a suspect, greatly contributing to the success of the terror attack.

Section TOC Title

She points out that the deceased suspect, Dzhokhar’s older brother, was on the FBI’s radar. He was even interviewed. But because of the overwhelming amounts of information at their disposal, FBI officials failed to follow up. “Part of the problem,” Rose said, “is that when everyone is surveilled, then authorities lose their focus” and civil liberties can be violated as a matter of procedure. Political speech can be targeted. People can be profiled by their race. People can be wrongly accused of perpetrating a horrific crime. Or investigated dubiously in place of a legitimate threat.

“We need to think about the purpose of these cameras,” she said. “If the purpose is to have a camera at an ATM to find people who are stealing, that’s one thing. But putting everyone into a database or recording every moment of every day from more than 500 cameras, the systems become overwhelmed.”

Rose is “not suggesting there needs to be a ban on surveillance cameras,” she said. “But if, in fact, the reason for using them is public safety, then there’s no reason all the innocent people who have been victimized by these awful attacks at the Boston Marathon need to end up in a criminal database or need to be used as a justification for expanded surveillance.”

“We’re part of a surveillance state that has made everyone into a suspect,” she said. “And if everyone becomes a suspect, then nobody is a suspect.”

Robert Burke, who sat for hours on a blue Coleman cooler filming Officer Collier’s memorial at MIT, wasn’t so sure about that. He, like many others in Boston, was just glad the bombing suspects — “the terrorists,” he was sure to clarify — are in custody. And as for adding his story to the media dump, he said he’s not interested. I prodded him repeatedly about who he was doing his video for, where he was planning to post it online. He told me nowhere.

“This video is for one person,” he said. “The officer’s father. He wanted to know why no one was covering his son’s death. So I said I’d do that for him.”

Burke had only met Collier’s dad once, randomly, at another memorial last week.

“Sometimes a story just isn’t for everyone.”

Adrianne Jeffries, Adi Robertson and Nathan Ingraham contributed to this report.

Photo Credits: Getty Images, C. Holmes, Shawna England, and Vjeran Pavic.