Digital Forensics Shines in
Boston Bombing Investigation
No one reading this magazine doubts the growing importance of digital forensics in solving crimes. Regardless of their motives or methods, modern criminals inevitably use computers, phones, and networks to
plan, execute, and/or document their crime.
However, no crime scene has driven home the importance of digital forensics to the general public like
the scene of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Dozens of articles following the attack highlighted
the importance of video and photo evidence in identifying the suspects and crowdsourcing was repeatedly
cited as a crucial element of the investigation.
“The Boston Marathon bombing investigation made use of crowdsourcing to collect photos and video from cell
phones and surveillance cameras at an unprecedented level,” wrote Gary Kessler for CNN. “These pictures were
made public a little more than 72 hours after the explosions and the second suspect was arrested 29 hours later.”
“Given the high-profile nature of the event where the attacks happened and the proliferation of cell
phones and other devices with still and video image capture capabilities, it turns out there [was] quite a bit
of photo evidence to sift through. On Reddit, an entire subreddit [was] set up to trade theories about what
that evidence purportedly shows,” PC Mag reported.
Whereas traditional forensics in a bombing like this could have taken weeks to turn up evidence as fragments of the bombs were analyzed for identifying marks, fingerprints, or DNA, the police call for video and
photo evidence yielded information within hours. In fact the amount of evidence was literally overwhelming.
“This is probably one of the most well photographed areas in the country,” Boston Police Commissioner
Ed Davis told The Verge. The wealth of photographic and video evidence available is both a challenge and
an opportunity. “We intend to go through every frame.”
Ultimately Reddit and other forums may have proved to be a double edged sword for investigators. After
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was taken into custody, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin posted an apology
for the online witch hunt that ensued after a call for information about the bombing suspects.
Nevertheless, these efforts did provide an enormous body of evidence quickly enough to prove of investigative use in the case.
“These kinds of cases really underscore that the general public is collecting video evidence every moment of every day. So when you have a major incident in a major area like this where you have a huge
gathering of the public, everyone there with a cell phone now has an evidence collection device that can
be used by law enforcement,” Grant Fredericks, forensic video analyst and instructor at the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA) in Indianapolis, told The Verge.
Initial reports concerning the investigation focused on traditional forensic evidence and analysis.
“Among items partially recovered are pieces of black nylon which could be from a backpack and what
appear to be fragments of BBs (ball bearings) and nails possibly contained in a pressure cooker device,”
Richard DesLauriers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s special agent in charge for Boston told a news
From this fragment of evidence, digital evidence was able to fill in the pieces. From videos of the two
young men, who were seen carrying backpacks as they mingled among the marathon crowd, the FBI
released images of their suspects, asking the public for their help identifying them. A surveillance tape
from a Cambridge convenience store extended the digital evidence trail, leading authorities to Tsarnaev’s
It’s hard to say whether this case could have been solved as quickly without the use of digital evidence—
Timothy McVeigh was arrested within 90 minutes of the Oklahoma City bombing—but it is clear that
digital forensics played an enormous role in both the investigation of the Boston bombing and the public’s
perception of it as it unfolded. –Rebecca Waters