Boston Marathon Explosion Investigators' Secret Weapon: Your Smartphone

As authorities in Boston still try to piece together what happened in the Boston Marathon explosion earlier this week, they’ve relied on a relatively new tool in the 21st century law enforcers' tool belt: amateur video.

Throughout the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston police and the FBI have constantly asked people who were there to contribute whatever they captured at the event, photos or videos, that they might be able to use, along with news cameras and nearby businesses' surveillance cameras, to piece together what happened, who did it, how and why.

Officials had been sent to Boston’s Logan Airport on the day of the bombing to ask travelers leaving the city after the marathon, and the bombing, to share whatever pictures or video they had. Thousands of pieces of evidence have been gathered and are being analyzed.

Earlier this week, the FBI said that it had made its first major break in the investigation in video clips, which they are now cross-referencing with the contributed photos through facial recognition software.

On Reddit, users created a subreddit at /r/findbostonbombers, where they are crowdsourcing the hunt, identifying people in before and after photos of the scene, compiling lists of suspects and the confirmed innocent, in an attempt to nip in the bud the kind of mob-mentality Web-based witch hunt that sites like Reddit and Twitter are notorious for.

Amateur video has also gotten a lot of attention even more recently, as cellphone videos of the Texas fertilizer explosion have emerged. Earlier this year, when an asteroid exploded over Russia, the country’s insane amount of personal dashboard cameras, meant to catch insurance fraud or police corruption, made the spectacle available for the whole world to share.

All of this is reminiscent of the Zapruder film, the amateur footage of the JFK assassination in 1963. That short grainy clip, the only one known to survive, has been pored over for the past 50 years for any evidence to back the rampant speculation that has surrounded the event. Imagine what would have been possible with today’s technology, where everyone carries 1080p HD video cameras in their pockets all the time.

It is also reminiscent of the inescapable eyes of George Orwell’s 1984, though we’ve ended up now with the powers of Big Brother in the hands of the people, with the government asking for a peek.

And with HD cameras set to become even more present and constantly capturing, as soon as this year with Google Glass, this is likely to grow as a phenomenon.

Which is why voters and Internet users have to keep up on issues like this week’s CISPA vote passing the House of Representatives: otherwise the government might not be so polite in gaining access to whatever you see.

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