The Technology of the Boston Bombing Manhunt

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of The BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. The surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing reportedly phoned his family in Russia this week for the first time since his arrest. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's mother tells Bloomberg News that her son said, "I am absolutely fine. My wounds are healing. Everything is in God's hands."  Tonight our partners at the PBS program NOVA look back at the Boston attack and the role technology played in cracking the case. Veteran science journalist Miles O'Brien produced and directed the hour-long program. Working on the documentary got him thinking about the shifting role of surveillance cameras in our society. He says police in Boston knew from the start that video evidence would be key.

Miles O'Brien: I spoke to the Boston police Commissioner Edward Davis, and within ten minutes of the bombing having occurred, he had a detective going up and down Boylston Street right there by the finish line grabbing video individually from each of the businesses that has security cameras, and it raises an interesting point. You would think in our day and age that the surveillance apparatus in a city like Boston would be network connected and monitored in some control room somewhere. Not so. It requires a fair amount of shoe leather just to acquire the video and then bring it in. It's a very manual process.

Werman: You indicate in your doc that the investigation could have gone even faster if Boston had some of the stuff that New York City has. They've got this domain awareness system. It's kind of a war room where police can watch and monitor video from thousands of cameras across the city in real time. You were there. What happens there? What's going on?

O'Brien: This is a one-of-a-kind in the world. Everybody thinks, when we think CCTV cameras, we think of London, which has by far the most cameras per square inch of any city in the world. However, they're not networked in a very cohesive way. What New York is trying to do is take the cameras that exist, soon to be 6,000 cameras feeding into the lower part of Broadway to a command center there, into a system they call domain awareness. So what they have done in conjunction with Microsoft is build some software that does the looking for them. And it does any number of things. It scans every license plate that comes across the bridges and tunnels into lower Manhattan and checks it against the terror watch list. It has the ability to flag suspicious behavior. If somebody leaves a bag on the sidewalk for any unusual period of time - they wouldn't tell me how long it is for security reasons - it will flag that. It has the ability, if I tell it I am looking for somebody wearing red within three blocks of the New York Stock Exchange, it will in two seconds give you a search of every camera that indicates someone wearing red in that vicinity. It also has the ability to go back as far as thirty days on any given camera.

Werman: So, domain awareness reminds me of total information awareness. Some of these technologies make you worry about big brother watching you, so how worried should the public be, at a civil liberties level, by the creepiness of what these technologies can achieve?

O'Brien: I can't tell you how many times the chills went up and down my spine, Marco, thinking about this. Put it all together: the facial recognition, the domain awareness. I'm afraid we have allowed our fear to create an apparatus which is bordering on big brother. And I think in the end what we all have to think about is, the real antidote to terrorism is not to let the terrorists win, not to be scared. And to the extent that we allow ourselves to creep into this big brother-esque police state, I think we head down a slippery slope, and we end up, at the end of the day if we don't watch it, in a world where yeah, maybe we're safer, but do we really want to live in that world?

Werman: The U.S. has cooperated with other countries in sharing intelligence -Russia in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers. Are many of those other countries as equipped as the U.S. with these kinds of technologies, and does it matter right now?

O'Brien: Well, what matters most is the connection between the countries, right? What you saw in the case of the Russia-U.S. interchange was miscommunication. You know, one of the things that I haven't gotten to the bottom of - and it's not an easy one to get to - is how many times do Russian authorities, Russian spies, call up their American counterparts and say, "Hey, we've got this Chechen you should be watching."  Now if they do that twice a month and Tamerlan Tsarnaev slips through the cracks, there's a problem. If they do it 4,000 times a month and he slips through the cracks, that's an entirely different story. And you can imagine a world where the Russians would like to point a finger toward a Chechen national and give him some trouble wherever he may be, the U.S. or elsewhere. So, I think it's really important. In a perfect world it'd be great if we all talked and communicated and shared this stuff. I don't think we're ever going to live in that world.

Werman: Science journalist Miles O'Brien is a reporter for the special NOVA presentation called Manhunt: Boston Bombers. It airs tonight on PBS. Miles, thanks a lot.

O'Brien: It was a pleasure, Marco. Thank you.