Boston Bombing Leads to New Tools in Digital Investigations

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This past April, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office in California made history by becoming the first law enforcement agency in the country to utilize a new system of investigating and storing mass amounts of digital surveillance materials, a concept that will very soon become standard at law enforcement agencies across the country and the world. The impetus that lead to these new tools in digital investigations was the Boston Bombing.

According to GCN.com, while investigating riots in Isla Vista, CA, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s used what’s called a LEEDIR — that’s, Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository.

The idea is simple enough — in the event of a large-scale, public incident, a cloud-based digital system is set up for the public to upload various pieces of video, audio or still-images. Then, once in the cloud, a law enforcement agency can sort through and investigate every piece of uploaded evidence.

The concept of a LEEDIR has its’ roots in the tragic aftermath of last years Boston Marathon bombing, in which thousands of Boston citizens and marathon attendees submitted hundreds of thousands of pictures and video of the horrific scene that occurred at the finish line of the race to the Boston Police Department. Originally, Boston Police had encouraged people to do this, but once the materials started flooding in, they realized very fast that they were in over their heads as far as having the capability and manpower to sort through all of the materials. The FBI promptly stepped in, assigning some of the best audio and video forensic experts in the country to scour through the countless pieces of evidence, working hand-in-hand with Boston PD. In the aftermath, after the two bombers were caught successfully by utilizing these audio and video forensic experts, law enforcement agencies realized that they needed a more efficient, organized system when it comes to sorting through massive amounts of media-materials.

The key issue here is that most local law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the computing capacity to deal with massive amounts of digital files. Add to that the fact that we now live in a day and age where anything and everything can be digitally captured by anyone with a smartphone (i.e. everyone), and it’s not hard to understand that a local police department would very easily be overwhelmed by the amount of materials they could receive from an incident that happened in a public area.

To utilize a LEEDIR, a law enforcement agency has to meet two pieces of criteria: They can only set one up for an event in which at least 5,000 people were in attendance, and the event must involve multiple jurisdictions. Once those two pieces of criteria are met, a law enforcement official must then visit LEEDIR.us, fill out a questionnaire, answer the confirmation phone call, and at that point, the system will be up and running.

The next step (and most important step) is making the system available to the public through a simple uploading app that can be used on any computer or smartphone. Once materials are uploaded, the system automatically copies them into a single format for viewing, and saves the original so it does not get altered in any way. Then, a team of analysts sort the various pieces of materials into separate folders — for example, one folder may contain all images or videos of people wearing white hats, while another folder may contain only images or videos of people wearing bookbags.

Finally, once all the materials are uploaded and sorted, investigators begin studying each and every piece of evidence. And the system is built so that multiple approved agencies can have access to it. When the investigation is over, the agency can download the entire system of evidence, or choose to pay and store the files long-term on the system.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is currently in the process of developing a LEEDIR with Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud service, and CitizenGlobal, an existing storehouse for digital videos and images.

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