04/19/2013 07:12 pm ET

Former FBI Official On Crowdsourced Evidence: 'Better To Over-Collect Than To Under-Collect'


We don’t yet know whether the images of the two men now accused of detonating deadly bombs at the Boston Marathon were gleaned through modern data mining -- poring through thousands of photos and videos captured on private citizens' cameras and smartphones -- or rather just old-fashioned police work.

The first photographs of the two suspects released by the FBI appear to have been captured by surveillance cameras, the sort of technology that has been in place for decades. But a former high-level FBI official suggested that, behind the scenes, more modern collection methods may well have played a role in pinpointing the suspects: The trove of photographs harvested from smartphones wielded by throngs of people in the area of the bombing may have sharpened the perspective of investigators.

"In every investigation, it's better to over-collect than to under-collect," Timothy Ryan, the former FBI official and now a managing director of the cyber-investigations practice at the global security firm Kroll told The Huffington Post. "That is the essence of investigations. If you start small when you're dealing with digital evidence, you run the risk of losing it. When you start big and you just start collecting stuff even if you're not sure exactly where this road is going to go, you're going to do a lot better."

While it may seem that this veritable crowdsourcing of a major criminal investigation would overload law enforcement -- in essence expanding the size of the haystack while looking for the hidden needle -- Ryan said he would have done the same thing.

"Whenever you release a photo to the public, you have the same risk as when you put a large reward to the public -- you have the possibility of overwhelming investigators with leads that don't pan out," Ryan said. "But in a case like this -- when the stakes are high enough and the resources of the entire U.S. government are at your disposal -- then that's exactly the right call."

Ryan, who spent 13 years with the FBI and ran the bureau's largest cybersquad, emphasized that the most useful data about the suspects is still to come.

"To the extent that they had a computer and used it, it will be a treasure trove of information," Ryan said.