Technical Manager, Abel Alarm Company Limited

Author Bio ▼

"Coming from a retail management background I have spent the last 10 years on the front line of operations with Abel Alarm Company Limited. I oversee all technical aspects of our alarm receiving centre, this involves a diverse set of skill requirements, from the implementation of virtualized servers and networks to the deployment of secure remote access tools whilst ensuring the constant availability of all networks, hardware and software and researching new, emerging technology solutions.
June 3, 2013

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Is Crowdsourcing the Future for Crime Investigation?

Following April’s Boston Marathon bombings, many people around the world wanted to help in any way they could. Previously, there would have been little but financial assistance that they could have offered.

However, with the advent of high-quality cameras on smartphone devices, and services such as YouTube and Flickr, it was not long before the well-known online collectives such as Reddit and 4chan mobilized members of the public to ask them to review hundreds of thousands of photos and videos taken on the day to try and identify potential suspects.

This came about following announcements that the incendiary devices were stored in pressure cookers within black bags or backpacks — so users knew what it was they were looking for.

Two potential suspects were at first incorrectly identified (I say incorrectly as the same individuals were seen with the same bags after the blast). Two further separate sightings of other individuals were also widely circulated, and led to the apprehension of two persons for further questioning by the authorities.

This is not the first time that 4chan has performed such a task, having previous success in tracking down several people guilty of posting videos of animal cruelty.

Impact and utilization

Here in the UK, we recently had the successful launch of Facewatch, and we have seen other regional attempts — such as Greater Manchester Police’s services and appeals app — to use the goodwill of members of the public to help trace, identify, or report suspected criminals and the crimes that they commit.

Does this herald a new era in transparency? Are we seeing the first steps towards a more transparent future where rapid information flow means that there really is nowhere to hide? Or are we instead falling into some Orwellian society construct where people are scared to speak out or think for themselves?

However this plays out in the long term, the here and now is that rather than many hundreds of officers and investigators poring through millions of images, the “many eyes” approach of 4Chan has potentially led to a swift identification which may not have been possible with the resources that the police hold.

In the future, it may be possible to automatically send images directly to the smartphone or other mobile device of a person as they arrive in a specific area, offering a reward if they are able to assist in locating an individual. We could see voluntary exercises in a similar fashion for military targets if we were to find ourselves at war.

Consider also that there are already well-established crowdsourcing models for design, translation, neuron mapping, and studying space, among many others.

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Joe Harris
Joe Harris
June 3, 2013 7:23 am

A recent news article highlighted the action taken by Anonymous in working together to publish identifying information about the English Defence League (EDL) members in the UK in the aftermath of the Woolwich incident. In the immediate aftermath of the incident EDL members were seen to be using the event as a catalyst for what seemed to be racially motivated violence. Members of the online Anonymous collective were quoted as speaking out against the ‘Cult’ of EDL and affirmed that they would act against what they saw as the indocrination of young minds to target innocents in an ongoing campaign.… Read more »

June 3, 2013 10:19 am
Reply to  Joe Harris

interesting info, I’m sad to her it… I do hope some type of resolution will be in sight…

June 5, 2013 7:02 am

Two potential suspects were at first incorrectly identified (I say incorrectly as the same individuals were seen with the same bags after the blast).
, thanks for the post.  The danger of using crowdsourcing for crime investigation is people start speculating. For example some of the activity on reddit fueled speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. Hence we need to be careful while using crowdsourcing for crime investigation.

Joe Harris
Joe Harris
June 5, 2013 11:17 am
Reply to  SunitaT

It is something I gave some thought to but where do we find the right balance?
You could make the same case against police Efits or wanted posters.
We must ensure that any potential identifications are clearly announced by any officials or media bodies as not being guilty until proven otherwise and NOT called a suspect unless other supporting evidence gives significant credence to any claim.