Why Hasn't the FBI's Facial Recognition Technology Found the Boston Bombers?

According to multiple reports, the FBI's investigation into potential perpetrators in the Boston Marathon bombings now centers on "clear video images" that may be released today — possibly without names to faces or answers to America's questions.

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According to multiple reports, the FBI's investigation into potential perpetrators in the Boston Marathon bombings now centers on "clear video images" that may be released today — possibly without names to faces or answers to America's questions. And while the case is a "fast moving" one with real progress on the horizon, the FBI's newest facial recognition hardware — and even its fancy 3D software — isn't quite the stuff of Hollywood. (Update: Here are the suspect photos.)

The FBI agent in charge of the search has encouraged local business around the crime scene to "review and preserve surveillance video" from what the Boston police commissioner calls "probably one of the most photographed areas in the country," while insisting that investigators will "go through every frame of every video we have." Turns out, the FBI might have had even more and better frames of surveillance footage preserved, but an important — if controversial, and expensive — state-of-the-art ID system is not yet in place across the country.

As for the particulars of the ongoing Boston investigation, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday before a Congressional committee that "there's lots and lots of video. There is some video that has raised the question of those that the FBI would like to speak with. I wouldn't characterize them as suspects under the technical term. But we need the public's help in locating these individuals." Which raises a somewhat obvious question with a high-tech answer: Isn't FBI facial recognition software good enough to track down these guys on their own? Don't they do that on Homeland? Of course, location is not the same as positive identification, but normally the feds can run even grainy surveillance stills against various databases for a match. This, however, is far from a normal case.

The Ideal Facial Recognition Case

The FBI already has a billion dollar project just for this kind of thing, called Next Generation Identification. Unfortunately — at least it's unfortunate in this case — the next-gen initiative only consists of pilot programs in a few states right now: Michigan, Hawaii, Maryland, and possibly Oregon. The $1 billion project is rolling out in phases and won't be fully deployed until 2014.

Generally the NGI aims to "offer state-of-the-art biometric identification services and provide a flexible framework of core capabilities," according to the FBI's description. That includes developments such as improved fingerprinting and iris scanning technologies. But it also specifically includes the building up a facial recognition database. (There are privacy concerns, obviously.) The program funding is also set to go toward an increase in closed-circuit security cameras, which have a proven track record of helping to find bad guys in particularly bad counterrorism investigations. As of 2007, Boston had 147 CCTVs on its streets. And that was before the NGI initiative started rolling out last fall. It's very possible that these types of standard surveillance cameras provided some of the footage we've been hearing about — at the Lord & Taylor across the street from the blast sites and elsewhere at the crime scene. (The Boston Globe reports today that "the best video has come from surveillance cameras on the same side of Boylston Street as the explosions.")

But, in addition to the funding of more cameras, the FBI's initiative will also attempt to integrate better with state and local databases. In the best case scenario, the image in question matches with something linked with an identity. Even if that happens, however, the information isn't evidence of anything, as Major Andrew Ashmar, director of the bureau of criminal intelligence for the Pennsylvania State Police, explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Allison Steele. "It's not fingerprints," he said. "It's not DNA. But what it does do is provide an investigative lead to follow."

The Boston Marathon Bombing Case

Indeed, as Napolitano said before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, "This is not an NCIS episode." And since the next-gen surveillance initiative is contained to those pilot programs, the FBI will likely try and run the video stills against official passport, visa, and drivers' license databases in addition to their own criminal databases, Paul Schuepp, CEO of Animetrics, a facial recognition company, told Fox News. Several states already have such databases of drivers' licenses to try and mitigate identity theft; the NYPD's Facial Recognition Unit uses Facebook and Instagram to run suspect photos against its databases.

Veteran White House counter terror advisor Richard A. Clark outlines a scenario in which the FBI may also try to recreate the blast by "using snippets from dozens of surveillance cameras," and in which "there may be store surveillance camera video of customers present when the phones were sold" — so-called "burner phones" may make up a trail for potential suspects' whereabouts, even names don't surface right away.

Before doing all that — and likely before showing any of us — the FBI has likely been analyzing what photos it apparently has of a person or persons of interest. That analysis, based on current facial recognition software capability, tends to convert the image to numbers in order to create a 3D version of the video stills, like the images pictured above. (The next-gen hardware would take it a step further, but the software can still do wonders with adding dimension.) Unlike older systems, which needed a straight facing photo, the FBI can now create that 3D image and manipulate it, making it easier to find a match, as Schuepp of Animetrics explained. Even if it's not the best photo, the FBI system can narrow down the search, Clarke told ABC News. "It's not 100 percent, but even a 70 or 80 percent correlation would narrow down the number of people that the FBI has to go after." If the FBI's images are, in fact, as "clear" as reports make them seem to appear, there may be enough data to extract a 3D rendering. But there are always shadows, poor angles, hats, and camouflage with which to contend.

And, hey, even if the photos don't bring up any matches, the FBI always has the sleuths of the Internet to lend a helping hand, which, so far, well, hasn't turned out so well. Stay tuned for updates on the Boston case here and here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.