A demonstration of phones arranged in a row to capture a single video. Image courtesy of CoSync
In the chaos that immediately follows a terrorist attack, there may be only one certainty: the incident has been documented by dozens, if not hundreds of cameras. At a large public gathering like the Boston Marathon, there are thousands of eyes: solitary recordings from closed circuit television video, TV broadcasters, and civilian mobile devices that generate reams and reams of footage of potential suspects.
After gaining access to that data—the FBI asked anyone in the area of Monday's bombing to turn over photographs and video—it falls to weary investigators to analyze that footage, from all directions at once, in search of a common thread. Somewhere inside Boston's amateur footage and CCTV video (there are 600 CCTV cameras covering the subway system alone), the FBI managed to point at the two men now thought to be the perpetrators: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were finally identified by the police only after a violent, deadly chase on Friday. One is dead; the other is now recovering from injuries in a tightly guarded hospital room.
But as authorities have discovered during more than a decade of urban terrorist attacks, scouring through what is thought to be the thousands of hours of video taken in the minutes surrounding any incident is a logistical nightmare. But that could change with CoSync, a piece of software under development, it turns out, at an MIT lab not far where one of the suspects shot and killed a campus police officer Thursday night.
Imagine if you could stitch together all the video footage from the Boston attack to form a single immersive narrative. CoSync has the ability to link video and audio from a multitude of cell phone cameras to provide a picture that functions, in theory, like 3-dimensional "bullet time," useful for building an interactive panorama of any public event. Due to be released in June as open source software, CoSync will allow other developers to build their own uses on top of CoSync’s networking technology.
A CoSync demo
“The vision is to allow you to dynamically gather hardware and software and control them in an opportunistic way,” said Eyal Toledano, a masters student at the MIT Media Lab who developed the software. Eyal, who once earned a “Defense Prize” as a military officer in the Israeli Defense Forces Intelligence Technologies unit, didn't design the software for intelligence operations—linking fan photos and videos of concerts and sporting events in real time was one original scenario. But he recognizes the value of linking together the media of separate devices for surveillance purposes.
“If you're taking a video and you’re ten feet away, the microphone within your device cannot capture the audio, so you could use other people’s devices as remotely synchronised microphones,” he told me. But in a terror investigation, Toledano said, technology such as CoSync "would allow you to immediately have different videos synchronized according to time, and then either reconstruct the scene of just reduce the need or effort to edit and process all these videos into a synchronized version."
With a little development, you can imagine how geolocation metadata would help piece footage together into a digital map, where the user could move between locations, angles and timeframes, like a very clever, time-specific video version of Google Street View. Toledano’s software connects each device by either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but told me it easily has the potential to run on 3G or LTE data networks, too. “With crowdsourced hardware you can build mobile applications that go and improve in value as more devices join the network," he said. "The options are quite endless.”
That doesn't mean that law enforcement could simply tap into a group of phones present during a terrorist attack in order to force the crowdsourcing of footage. But it's not technically impossible. Linking together video footage and data into a single system is the goal of a number of surveillance software projects currently under development. Big Brother-like surveillance technology is already a priority for New York City: earlier this year the NYPD and Microsoft announced a $40 million piece of counter-terrorism software called Domain Awareness System (DAS), which combines real time analytics with the city’s CCTV video feeds to identify potential threats. It will reportedly be available for other intelligences to purchase by next year.
Combine the power of crowdsourcing technologies like CoSync with the growing ubiquity of video capture technology like Google Glass and surveillance drones, and it’s easy to see that with the right tools to manage it all, investigators could exploit a huge abundance of visual data to build completely new perspectives on criminal events, and possibly in real time. But, like the software itself, the ongoing debate over how tools like this will impact privacy remains a work in progress.