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Boston bombings: Forensics on crowdsourced video will be a challenge

Jaikumar Vijayan | April 18, 2013
But Boston can draw from successful use after 2011 Vancouver riot

Law enforcement authorities investigating the Boston Marathon bombings on Tuesday called on citizens to turn in any video footage or digital images they might have taken at the event. According to Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, investigators intend to go through "every frame of every video" in their possession to track down the perpetrators of the attacks that killed three people and injured more than 170 others.

The immediate task for Boston investigators will be to ensure that they have a good process in place for gathering video and digital images turned in by the public, Fredericks said. In Vancouver, many of those who sent in video of the riots edited the footage or changed file formats while submitting their videos and compromised the integrity of the footage in the process, he said.

The next task will be to convert or to transcode all the images they receive from the public and from the hundreds of CCTVs in the area of the bombings, into a standardized interoperable and uncompressed format, Fredericks said.

In the Vancouver investigation, analysts at LEVA used a software tool called Omnivore from Ocean Systems, a Burtonsville, Md.-based company, to convert the video from hundreds of different screen resolutions, screen sizes, frame rates and analog and digital file formats into a standard format.

The standardized footage will then need to be stabilized to ensure consistency in quality, said Charles Guarino, vice president of Ocean Systems. Once the images have been stabilized, investigators looking through the video will have the ability to tag or mark anything significant they see in the footage.

"It's like putting a yellow sticky tab on the video," he said. The tabs allow investigators to instantly get back to a specific point in the video footage using specific search terms.

Such tagging will allow investigators to capture sequential images from different video sources and track individuals who have moved between different video sources within a specific time period, Guarino said. "You could line up multiple sources of video and sync them all up," and see events as they happened in sequential order even though the images might have been captured by multiple video devices.

Many forensics video tools these days also have audio acquisition and processing capabilities that enable video searches using specific words or phrases. "I could take a section of video and type in a word that you might have said and [the software] will phonetically search the audio and video and cue me right up to the place where you said 'bomb'," Guarino said.

"In Boston, the challenge is going to be getting all the data they can," said Paul Steinberg chief technology officer at Motorola Solutions. The company acts as an integrator with police department and governments in the U.S. and elsewhere to set up surveillance systems that are used mostly to review an incident after the fact.


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