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Facial recognition and identifying suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing

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Fresh reports suggest the bombs used at yesterday’s Boston Marathon were made from a common household item: pressure cookers.

Though the identification of the kind of explosive device is an important clue that investigators will follow, the identity of the bomber (or bombers) is still a mystery and its likely biometrics will play a significant role in this investigation.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday said the FBI, which is leading this investigation, is looking at the bombing as an act of terrorism. On Monday, the U.S. president very specifically avoided the classification during an afternoon press conference.

“Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror,” he said Tuesday. “What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack or why, whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization – foreign or domestic – or was the act of a malevolent individual.”

According to the AP, yesterday’s bombings have so far killed three people and injured 140.

Since the bombing, authorities have appealed to anyone who was at the event to turn over any video or photo evidence, in hopes that they may hold crucial details in identifying a suspect.  Though nothing can be confirmed, particularly in the midst of an investigation, it is likely facial recognition will be used to identify suspects from these photos and videos. So far, the FBI has received more than 2,000 tips.

“The feasibility of facial recognition is always determined by pose and illumination, so it works best when someone is looking straight at the camera and the illumination is right,” Jim Albers, Senior Vice President of Government Operations for MorphoTrust USA said. “Therefore in surveillance situations where people are not drawn to look at the camera, you have difficulties in using facial recognition,”

MorphoTrust USA, which specializes in hardware and software for the biometric arena, provides its enterprise software – ABIS – to a number of organizations in the federal government, though obvious limitations prevent the company from disclosing specifics.

Dr. Brian Martin, MorphoTrust USA’s Director of Research, who specializes in facial recognition, says the algorithms developed over the last 15 years have been trained to match faces looking at the camera, and at times, require digital compensation.

“When you have poor quality data, face recognition is better used as a tool to generate leads,” Martin said.

The good news is, considering the number of people at the Boston Marathon, there will be a significant body of photo and video to be combed through as investigators hunt for clues and look to identify any potential suspects or persons of interest.

According to Paul Schuepp, CEO and President of Animetrics, a firm which specializes in face recognition and 2D-to-3D visualizations, smartphones have increasingly powerful on-board cameras and can often produce valuable images for facial analysis.

“Cell phones are great because the cameras have very high resolution,” Schuepp said. “The problem does get into the wide angle aspect ratio [of smartphone cameras] which can distort faces a little bit. If they are too close to the face, you see the wide angle effect.”

“Pose is one thing and because of our technology, we can mitigate the pose, but to make the three-dimensional model of the face for accurate comparison, you need the information of the face that is useful,” Schuepp said. “You really need to get upwards of 65 pixels between the eye centers, for enough resolution to give you a good statistical comparison.”

“I was just looking online on the Boston tragedy and there are a lot of YouTube videos posted. I just saw one from someone at street-level when the blast occurred and the faces are recognizable if you knew the person, and they are good enough that we could make a 3-D of and fill in the inclusions.”

FBI agent Richard Deslauriers, during a press conference this afternoon, said that whoever did this has friends or family who know about it. “We’re asking anyone who may have heard someone speak about the marathon, or about the date of April 15 in any way, to call us.”

Deslauriers also appealed to businesses to preserve any surveillance video in its original form.

“Regarding who might be suspected, the investigation is in its infancy,” Deslauriers said. “At this time there are no claims of responsibility. The range of suspects and motives remains wide open.”

Though everyone is in agreement that facial recognition is not always a definitive and conclusive answer to identification in instances like this where the faces in question are not looking directly into the camera, the use of this technology is an obvious step in identifying a list of suspects, as the massive hunt continues.

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