When Everyone's an Investigator: How Technology Aided The Boston Marathon Manhunt

Brian Resnick
National Journal

Less than two decades ago, another sporting event in the United States was impacted by terror. Bombs were placed in areas the public were sure to assemble. One died in the blast, 111 were injured. And it took seven years for authorities to successfully apprehend the perpetrator.

The details of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing and last week’s Boston Marathon attack are different. Eric Robert Rudolph, who was sentenced for the crime, planted the bomb in the middle of the night, and was not there when it detonated. Another major difference: If he had committed the crime today, with the advanced communications technologies we have, would he have been on the run for so long?

One of the lessons of this chaotic week is that advances in technology have completely changed the nature of a mass public crime scene. Everyone is a witness; everyone is plugged in to the Web.

Over the last week, here are the key pieces of technology that stood out:

Closed Circuit Television

Image of a suspect released by the FBI.

In 2005, London’s extensive closed circuit television network was crucial for putting together the timeline of events that led up to the blasts. While Boston’s system isn’t as extensive as London’s (which has one of the largest camera per capita ratios of any city anywhere), this past week proved there doesn’t need to be a huge numbers of cameras to track a suspect. Cameras from the Lord & Taylor department store proved pivotal in nailing down the suspects..

The Camera Phone

(AP Photo/Kenshin Okubo)

It seemed that nearly every inch of Boylston Street was caught on camera before, during, and after Monday’s attacks. And it wasn’t because of a big-brother network of cameras. The camera phone is so ubiquitous that it’s not necessary to make the distinction between phones and camera phones anymore. They’re just phones.

After the FBI released the blurry CCTV photos on Thursday, it wasn’t long before David Green discovered that he had inadvertently taken a high-resolution photo of suspect No. 2, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, as he was fleeing the scene.

Social media


I'm a stress free kind of guy

— Jahar (@J_tsar) April 17, 2013


View photos

As we learned the names of the suspects, national media also began to thread a narrative of their lives, by threading together their Internet footprints.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older suspect, who was killed in a firefight early Saturday morning, emerged as the more radical of the brothers. A YouTube account that appeared to be his was quickly found. On it were videos suggesting links with Islamic terrorism. It didn’t take long for Internet sleuths to located him in a photo essay once his name was publicized in the media. In one of the captions, he says: "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them."

A much more complicated picture emerges of Dzhokar, the 19 year old. His Twitter account isn’t too out of the ordinary. He likes cars, beerpong, Game of Thrones, and cheeseburgers. People who knew him called him “a normal pothead,” charismatic, athletic, and kind. Armchair psychoanalysts on the news will be stumped until he starts to provide some answers to the FBI. How somebody held in a good regard among peers became the prime suspect in a terrorist plot will be one of the more interesting stories to unfold from this episode.

The Internet also aided thousands in coordinating an immediate relief effort after the bombing. Google set up a person finder application to help victims, dispersed runners, and families find one another after the blast. A massive database was created to offer couches and beds to stranded marathon runners.

Social media also allowed network and cable news to get close to the action in Watertown. When cameras couldn’t get close to the gunfire in Watertown, residents holed up in their homes connected to through Skype and pointed their webcams out of their windows.

While social media shined, it also faltered. Reddit users-turned vigilantes, leading many down false paths and accusing people innocent of the crime. For instance, shortly after the FBI released the video of the two suspects, some on Twitter and Reddit began to make a connection to Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing for several months. "Those night hours were horrible," Sangeeta Tripathi, the sister of the missing student, told Reuters.

The rumor wasn’t cleared up until the morning when NBC’s Pete Williams correctly identified the suspects. As The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal writes, when there’s a lack of narrative thread, good intentioned people on social networks will force one. “A piece of evidence that fit a narrative some people really wanted to believe was conjured into existence and there was no stopping its spread,” he wrote.

Heat sensing cameras


Air Wing views from Watertown manhunt. 5 total pics released.No further info available tonight on pictures twitter.com/MassStatePolic…

— MASS STATE POLICE (@MassStatePolice) April 20, 2013

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Once authorities got the tip that Dzhokar was hiding in a boat, it wasn’t hard to confirm. A helicopter equipped with a heat-sensing camera detected him in the boat, even though he was underneath a plastic tarp.