Facial recognition software failed to identify Boston Marathon bombing suspects, despite photos available in databases

Facial Recognition

Even though the whole ordeal is over, and Boston is slowly picking up the pieces after the Boston Marathon bombing, lots of people want to know why this happened. Another relevant question is how the two suspects evaded law enforcement for so long before finally being discovered. One reason is failure of highly-expensive facial recognition software.

The Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, told the Washington Post that facial recognition software used by the department was not able to identify either of the two suspects.

According to the Post:

“The technology came up empty even though both Tsarnaevs’ images exist in official databases: Dzhokhar had a Massachusetts driver’s license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and Tamerlan had been the subject of some FBI investigation.”

It seems silly that the software failed, especially considering how advanced modern technology is these days. Then again, I’m willing to bet the software used at the Boston PD is probably outdated. It’s no secret that it costs a lot of money to stay on the bleeding edge, and that’s money the state probably isn’t willing to invest. Keep in mind I’m just speculating here, I actually have no clue how updated the Boston PD’s facial recognition software is.

Regardless, facial recognition systems don’t work too well when scanning low resolution images like those taken from a surveillance video and low-quality cell phone cameras. (I’m not even going to bother to generalize that statement about all cell phone cameras because I know better; a lot of smartphones are just as powerful as professional point and shoot cameras now.)

Even so, surveillance equipment was partly responsible for authorities being able to identify the suspects, as the Post notes:

“The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times. The goal was to construct a timeline of images, following possible suspects as they moved along the sidewalks, building a narrative out of a random jumble of pictures from thousands of different phones and cameras. It took a couple of days, but analysts began to focus on two men in baseball caps who had brought heavy black bags into the crowd near the marathon’s finish line but left without those bags.”

I don’t know what to think of all this information, but I will say in this day and age it’s unacceptable. What good is facial recognition software that probably cost millions of dollars if law enforcement must manually identify persons of interest? I’m not suggesting everyone should have pulled out their phones when the bombs went off to get the high-resolution photos or videos required for facial recognition to work; I’m saying you’d think the expensive technology would at least be able to flag the suspects involved regardless of the quality of photos/videos given.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

[via Ars Technica, Washington Post, image via Mashable]

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  • Suze

    As a subscriber to BostonGlobe.com, I read this article in today’s “paper,” and thought it might enlighten some of the assumptions made here (although I’m not sure it can be accessed without a subscription): http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/04/28/facial-recognition-technology-after-marathon-bombings/VN9gyIUqtps5EVfjI47P1J/story.html.

  • V

    Look a it this way: If 2 clowns who could barely walk and chew gum at the same time gave BPD so much trouble, imagine what a more coordinated and trained group could do.

    No, this was NOT the Boston PD’s finest hour and, try as they might to shift the blame, tech failures were not the cause.

    The entire management of that police force should be sacked, immediately.

  • Beea

    Lets agree to disagree. You can enjoy your 300 dollar toy and I will hope there is enough budget to help.

    FYI: I am permanently disabled 60 year old women and due to budget cuts will soon be getting a smaller fixed income while all my living cost are rising. So you see spending government funds is personal for me.

  • Briley Kenney

    I’ll admit I have no clue how dated their technology is, if at all. It was an observation and I noted as such in the article.

  • Briley Kenney

    [@Beea] That’s my problem? I think you’re missing the point here. The Facial recognition technology that the Boston PD uses is probably very expensive even though it’s outdated. If I, a measly freelance writer, can afford to own an Android phone with accurate facial recognition technology then the state can afford to upgrade the PD software to meet modern tech.

    As for your comment about budget cuts, now you’re getting into politics. Point is, a lot of these state funded environments use outdated technology that would work much better for the employees if it had stayed up to date.

  • Beea

    oops I did not finish

    Which is important?

  • Beea

    @Briley Kenney
    That’s your problem. You can afford a 300 android. You live in a time of budget cuts. Working poor are lined up at food banks. If you had a choice of increasing the budget for new technologies or increasing it to help people that can not help themselves.

  • kevbo

    I don’t mind saying it: they did a half-assed job.

    One recognized potential terrorist and his baby kid brother planted two bombs in the busiest part of the Marathon route, and made the police and other security forces look like the Keystone Cops. They put half a city under what effectively was house arrest for almost a day, only to have a citizen/homeowner point out a trail of blood leading to the last suspect. Yeah, good job.

    Reminds me of the old saying: When seconds count, the police are minutes away.

  • Briley Kenney

    [@Beea] *today Grrr typos.

    As for watching too much TV, my $300 Android smartphone has a mode that allows me to unlock the device using facial recognition alone. It’s incredibly accurate too.

  • Briley Kenney

    [@Beea] Excuse me? I don’t believe I said anywhere in this post that Boston PD did a horrible job. In fact I even mentioned that if the software is out of date it’s probably because the STATE is too cheap to pay for the resources they need. I’m sorry if it felt like I was criticizing the PD in this post.

    I was just saying with the technology we have to day it seems silly that the PD only have low quality surveillance footage to go on. That is all. Is that not ridiculous with today’s tech?

  • Beea

    Your being a b*tch Briley. The Boston PD did an excellent job. If you really believe facial recognition technology should be able to flag the suspects involved regardless of the quality of photos/videos given you have been watching to much tv.