The FBI Needs An App For That

[The following post was written in the pre-Snowden era, and reflects a certain naivety on your author’s part, coupled with a desire to help my fellow citizens.]

Feelings come and go.  There are times when it’s easy enough to be skeptical of our government in general, and of their use use of technology.  It was only a week ago, for instance, that many of us observed this headline: IRS claims it can read your e-mail without a warrant.  So much for the Fourth Amendment.  But then there are days when tragedy strikes.  And on these days, such events bring out the best in nearly all of us.  We become a lot less self-centered.  We ask what we can do to help, even if it’s only to pray or to donate to the Red Cross.  The tragedy at the Boston Marathon on Monday was but the latest example.

In the wake of the events in Boston, many things are no doubt happening simultaneously.  Too many are still receiving critical medical care needed to save their lives, or to return them to their prior mobility.  Some lives have been altered forever, and three have been lost.  Much can be said for the medical and emergency professionals in Boston, then and now, doing what they do best.

Meanwhile, we know that local, state and federal investigators are working around the clock to determine exactly what happened.  The FBI is soliciting photos and video from any of the tens of thousands of spectators that were in downtown Boston leading up to the explosions.  Given the proliferation of smartphones in recent years, and the likelihood that countless photos and video were captured in the hours leading up to the blasts at this very public event, they’ve got their work cut out for them.  Gathering photographic and video evidence from citizen eyewitnesses may well be the easy part.  But it could be made easier, and better.

Our modern smartphones are somewhat uniquely valuable as evidence-gathering tools.  When you snap a photo on an Apple iPhone, for instance, you get a lot more than a high-resolution picture.  The image typically includes EXIF data that reveals many things, including your device make and model, its orientation, and the date and time that you took the photo, down to the second.  Since your phone’s time is often updated from the cellular network, those time stamps are reasonably precise.  Also included is your latitude and longitude, altitude, and even the direction you were facing.  EXIF tags could play a key role in algorithmically sorting the evidence, creating timelines and such.

In smaller investigations where smartphone-captured evidence is available, we can expect that an analyst would hook up the device and suck the contents to be sure that he or she got everything.  In a large-scale catastrophe, however, witnesses may well be submitting their evidence to agencies using a variety of means, and with mixed results.  Emailing photos from your phone may shrink them, giving up resolution that could be used to make a positive ID.  Importing them to your computer or manipulating images prior to upload can only risk losing some of the EXIF data or otherwise diminishing their evidentiary value.

Imagine, if you will, the following FBI smartphone app.  Given our acronym-friendly government, we could expect to call it something like FBI PIX (Public Information eXchange), for example.  Maybe it’s easier to think of it as an FBI Instagram.   This app would be freely available for every smartphone operating system, starting with iOS and Android.  When a major event occurs, a series of actions could begin in sequence…

  • The FBI would create a new event in their back-end systems for which they are requesting public submissions from anyone in proximity to the situation.  They could be ready to accept event-specific information almost immediately.
  • Any citizen who already has the app installed could receive a push notification with news and a request for photographs, video, or voice-dictated testimony.  At the same time, the media could alert anyone in possession of potential evidence to download the app if they haven’t already.
  • FBI PIX, as we’ll call it, would allow a phone’s owner to select photos and video directly from the phone’s photo stream or memory for submission.  They could be asked for additional information, including follow-up contact info such as an e-mail address and phone number.  Depending on the level of operating system integration, contact information might even be gathered automatically in some cases.  All evidence, including photos and video at their native resolution, containing all EXIF tags, would be bundled and transmitted directly to FBI servers using SSL encryption.
  • Submissions could be automatically logged into evidence, using the time and location data to populate an event data warehouse.  It’s likely that such an app could take steps to establish authenticity of evidence, and whether any in-camera image editing had taken place.  Chain-of-custody issues may be addressed as well.
  • All the while, users of the PIX app need no more technical knowledge than an adequate understanding of their phone and using apps in general.

Now there are obvious pitfalls to such a proposal, and we’re not going to try to cover them all.  There are those who wouldn’t be inclined to install any app from the FBI on their phone, for fear that it contained undocumented features that let the FBI spy on them.  For some, these concerns might be allayed by independent security audits.  Many would install the app only as needed, hopefully no more than once in a lifetime.  (It’s important to remember that we are still very safe here in America, relative to other locales and other periods in human history.)  And we probably wouldn’t want the app to enter everyday crime fighting use, pitting neighbor against neighbor as smartphone-toting informants.

For those Americans who find themselves thrust into the midst of a large-scale tragedy and soon ask what they can do to help, such an app may well be an opportunity to make a difference.  It could save the FBI time, especially in the early-going.  Ease of use could lead to more evidence submitted than might otherwise be the case.  EXIF data could be used to prioritize the flood of submissions for further human evaluation.  This could all serve as cords in the net that is ultimately thrown over the perpetrators of evil.

No doubt this hypothetical FBI PIX app is hardly an original idea.  And a team may well be working on it now, somewhere in Virginia.  Fortunately for all of us, Boston is the first time in years that such an app would be particularly useful.  Hopefully America won’t need it again for years to come.  Even so, now’s as good a time as any to get started.

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