In an earlier era, law enforcement might not have identified the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing so rapidly. When the smoke literally cleared on Monday, investigators had a huge problem and nearly no leads. No individual or organization claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed three and wounded more than 180. So they took a big leap: They copped to how little they knew, and embraced the wisdom of The Crowd.
Hiding in plain sight was an ocean of data, from torrents of photography to cell-tower information to locals’ memories, waiting to be exploited. Police, FBI, and the other investigators opted to let spectator surveillance supplement and augment their own. When they called for that imagery, locals flooded it in. They spoke to the public frequently, both in person and especially on Twitter. All that represented a modern twist on the age-old law enforcement maxim that the public’s eyes and ears are crucial investigative assets, as the Internet rapidly compressed the time it took for tips to arrive and get analyzed.
But the FBI and police have been reluctant to embrace what the hive mind can provide: it implies the authorities don’t always have the answers. Veteran law enforcement officers remember cases from the ’90s when the bureau clammed up to the public and local cops, at the expense of receiving greater public cooperation. “If law enforcement didn’t share any information — [as with bombers] Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — if your intel is shared with no one, that is the consummate investigative challenge,” says Mike Rolince, a retired FBI special agent who set up Boston’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force.
As of this writing, police, FBI agents, National Guardsmen and state troopers are still combing the streets of Watertown, trying to find 19-year old University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His older brother, Tameran, a former boxer, lies dead after a chaotic pre-dawn chase with police. But they might never have been identified so rapidly, the ex-investigators tell Danger Room, had investigators not decided that their best resource wasn’t in their own pockets. It was in everyone else’s.