Ten years ago on April 15th, 2013, the city of Boston was struck by an unforgettable act of terror. Two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and forever changing the lives of so many more.
A decade later, Rank One Computing CEO Scott Swann and Co-founder and Chief Scientist Brendan Klare recall their unique perspectives, and reflect on the last ten years of technology and innovation inspired by the tragic incident.
Recalling The Incident
Swann, now an 18-year FBI veteran, supported the FBI Science & Technology Branch within the Director’s Office in Washington DC as the case unfolded. Klare, like many, initially followed the disturbing news from home, but was later recruited by Swann to help identify technology solutions to address significant challenges that emerged from the investigation.
Swann recalls the immediate aftermath of the event, “I was working with FBI executives on the 7th floor. It was like a command center – so chaotic – things were happening really fast,” said Swann, “A video came in with the first big tip of who these guys were. My colleagues loaded it up on an iPad to get it in front of the President within minutes.”
A tragic act of terror had been captured publicly by so many cameras from so many angles, but law enforcement agencies unfortunately lacked automated solutions to help identify and track down the suspects. For the first time at scale, the FBI took the unprecedented steps of opening their tip line for the public to submit photos and videos to aid the investigation. The response was overwhelming, and the FBI was quickly inundated by terabytes of multimedia from private citizens who wanted to help.
“It was almost too much video data to manage effectively at that time. There were great FBI agents and law enforcement officials working the events and at the end this is what really led to breaking the case,” said Swann. “I think the overload of data just opened up a lot of ‘what if’ questions. We knew we had a gap after this incident that we needed to address.”
Conducting a Major Issue Study
In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombing, Swann recognized a significant technology limitation and suggested the need for a broad overarching assessment and industry study. So the 18-year FBI veteran led the charge for a Major Issue Study to better understand the video analytic landscape across commercial and government sectors, and to develop a comprehensive roadmap for managing video more effectively in the future.
Familiar with Klare’s graduate research and early work in the lab of Dr. Anil Jain, Swann eagerly recruited him as a consultant on the project. The assessment explored the scope of video processing challenges across government and commercial organizations, ultimately identifying massive cross-industry technology gaps, and recommending a path for prioritization and investment moving forward.
There were no existing solutions that brought together all the capabilities needed at scale. “Child exploitation, gang affiliation, terrorist networks, criminal activity – as you think about the collection, analysis, and dissemination of such information it was daunting” said Klare.
At the time, face recognition technology wasn’t built for unconstrained environments with unusual angles or lighting, and it certainly wasn’t built to handle terabytes of data in seconds.
“We founded Rank One Computing in 2015 to focus on both accuracy AND efficiency, after experiencing these processing limitations firsthand,” said Klare. A few years later, the tables turned when Klare recruited Swann to join Rank One Computing as CEO. “He was the clear choice. He is an immense professional with incredible focus and vision, who carries weight and drives action,” said Klare.
While Swann moved on from the FBI after completing the study, the FBI’s Multimedia Exploitation Unit and others went on to stand up an impressive set of capabilities well beyond those initial set of recommendations.
“The post-event analysis of the Boston Marathon Bombing was my last big assignment at the FBI. The contributions Brendan and I made with the video study were effective in getting some attention to a gap in technology capabilities. Working in the FBI Director’s Office provided one of the best vantage points I could ever have in understanding the professionalism of the agents that handle these cases. Equipping these men and women with the best technology possible is a force multiplier in preventing future catastrophes and ensuring a rapid response to serve justice,” said Swann.
Fast Forward to Today
Since 2013, the field of biometric and computer vision technology has made incredible progress. Face recognition technology is now faster, more accurate, and more reliable than ever before, enabling even small local law enforcement agencies to identify potential suspects more efficiently.
ROC has remained positioned at the forefront of this progress, working to develop faster and more accurate algorithms that can be used to enhance safety and security in a variety of critical settings. As an organization, ROC works to apply the important lessons learned from real world scenarios to improve safety across the country and around the world, including in schools.
Currently in West Virginia public schools, ROC’s deployed system can automatically control building access, helping to keep unauthorized individuals out. “There’s nothing more critical than our next generation of leaders,” said Swann. “Face recognition is now the most accurate biometric technology available – overtaking both fingerprint and iris identification in recent years. Our solutions can now process near infinite volumes of data essentially instantly.”
As Klare explains, “We can now organize and track data sets with more than a million unique identities in no time at all, on any hardware, even in unconstrained environments. We can also automatically identify long guns. Our biometrics have been used by law enforcement agencies across the country to catch violent criminals.”
ROC SDK, a multimodal software development kit, powers the fastest, most accurate, scalable solutions for not only identifying criminal suspects using face recognition, but also tracking the movement of suspects through a crowd (“clustering”), and securing spaces with automated visitor identification and watchlist enforcement.
And ROC Watch, a live video analytics platform, channels the power of ROC’s industry-leading algorithms into a convenient, intuitive SAAS solution, unlocking innovative safety tools for more community and commercial organizations.
But while we have come a long way in the past ten years, there is still much work to be done. As we reflect on the progress we have made, we must also acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead. Issues of privacy, bias, and misuse of technology continue to be a concern, and we share a responsibility with our customers to ensure that our solutions are developed and deployed in a responsible and ethical manner.
Released in 2021, ROC’s Code of Ethics was the first of its kind in the biometric and computer vision industries. They require customers to abide by the code as part of their licensing agreement.
“There’s a lot we couldn’t do back then that we can proudly do today, but there are also many things still not possible today when it comes to computer vision and biometric technologies. We have to find the balance between pushing against limitations and recognizing boundaries,” said Klare. “As we look back on the role today’s technology could have played in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are reminded of the incredible potential it holds to make our world a safer and more secure place.”