By Samuel Greengard
For decades, we've watched movies and futuristic television shows depict a future in which law enforcement agencies use all sorts of high-tech tools to nab criminals. If the investigation following the Boston Patriot Day bombings proved one thing, it's that law enforcement officials have caught up with the future.
There was a time when the horrific events of Boston could have led to a months-long investigation—with no guarantee of results. But the use of video surveillance, facial recognition technology, thermal imaging, social media, crowdsourcing and other digital forensics tools helped the FBI identify suspects and begin tracking them down within a couple of days.
In this case, it was possible to watch the gaps fill in before our eyes. And when law enforcement officials finally received a tip that a trail of blood led to a boat parked on a lot in Watertown, Mass., a helicopter using a thermal imaging system spotted a person, in this case suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, covered by a tarp.
These technologies will continue to advance. For instance, the FBI's Next Generation Identification program attempts to expand the use of biometric identification. It is slated to be fully operational in 2014.
The system incorporates facial recognition technology, along with iris scans, voice recognition and other tools. The program will incorporate more than 12 million searchable images. Researchers are also looking into gait analysis and other movement systems to detect suspicious behavior.
In the future, spy drones and helicopter-mounted cameras will circle over large events and public gatherings. An even more fascinating question is whether law enforcement will be able to put big data to use for predictive analytics.
As far-fetched as this concept sounds, predictive policing is already happening. Police departments, including those in Los Angeles, New York and Santa Cruz, Calif., now use big data to predict where criminal activity is likely to occur.
The ultimate question is whether society can use these technologies effectively and reasonably. During the Boston investigation, photos and video captured by runners, spectators and others served as a critical investigative tool.
Yet, at the same time, amateur detectives on Reddit and other social media sights offered no shortage of insights, opinions and half-baked theories based on photos and other evidence. Unfortunately, some of these self-appointed experts focused on people who ultimately had no role in the bombings. It was the good, the bad and the really ugly.
The future has arrived.