Adam's Antics

April 17, 2013

Social Media Vigilantes: Self-Deputized Investigators Aid Law Enforcement?

Filed under: General Antics,Law — Adam Scott Wandt @ 11:53 am

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Did 4Chan Identify the Boston Bombers?

Americans tend think of hacking groups like Anonymous and 4Chan as mischievous criminals who cause damage and cost corporations and governments millions upon millions of dollars.

But occasionally the views of these groups align with popular opinion.

In response to the explosions at the Boston Marathon, online discussion forums are abuzz with the story that the global hacking group 4Chan took to the Internet to conduct their own cyber investigation. 4Chan reportedly requested assistance from the public and collected scores of photographs, a technique called crowd sourcing.

4Chan painstakingly analyzed the photos and identified several individuals who may have been involved with the bombing.

A website has been created ( with annotated photographs showing the suspects at different points in time. Two photographs are annotated “Suspect #1” and “Suspect #2.” The suspects can be seen with and without two backpacks that may have been used to carry the bombs. A third suspect carries a duffel bag. Several other suspects are also identified. The photographs and evidence are clearly presented to the public.

This type of crowd sourced criminal investigation is a fairly new activity for hacker groups to engage in. What are the pros and cons of these activities?


  1. Taking initiative to increase public safety.
  2. Conducting a public and transparent investigation.
  3. Collecting evidence that may assist law enforcement.
  4. Looking out for Americans.


  1. May be considered inappropriate or illegal interference with a federal investigation.
  2. Alerting and outing possible suspects could cause problems for law enforcement.
  3. Releasing evidence before the government deems it appropriate may be considered a problem for national security.
  4. What if these people are innocent? What about violent vigilantly responses?
  5. What if images are being doctored?

One final thought: Looking at these photographs, I noticed that some of these people look like special ops, not terrorists. Two of the suspects are wearing tactical pants and the backpacks possibly used to carry the bombs look like tactical gear. Did 4Chan simply identify undercover law enforcement or military, not terrorists?

Perhaps these photographs leave more questions unanswered than answered. But one thing is for sure… hacker groups engaging in crowd sourced criminal investigations is an interesting behavior that raises new ethical and legal issues.

Take a look at this archive of 4Chan’s photo investigation work ( and tell me what you think in the comments below.






1 response to “Social Media Vigilantes: Self-Deputized Investigators Aid Law Enforcement?”

  1. This certainly increases the pressure on LE. Credibility will come by reacting to increase public safety not protect turf.

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