Boston Bombings Point to a Future of “Swarm Surveillance”

Share Article

Police activation of citizen and business technology assets will be commonplace within 10 years, providing results even quicker than the gripping investigative triumph of last month’s Boston bombings, according to writer and futurist Dr Bruce McCabe, who releases a book today examining the future of rapid-response policing.

Writer and futurist Dr Bruce McCabe

Police officers will ‘click to access’ private CCTV cameras in retail stores, banks, service areas, restaurants and cabs while an incident is unfolding.

“The outstanding results achieved by the FBI and Boston Police Department demonstrate the overwhelming value of speed when responding to unfolding terrorist attacks,” said McCabe, who draws on his experiences in cutting-edge technology to tackle the subject in Skinjob, a novel released today on

“Digital technology and community expectations for swift and effective responses to terrorism will inevitably take us into unprecedented new territory in law enforcement.”

McCabe, whose background is in science and technology research, predicts that by 2023 we can expect routine practices to include:

  •     Downtown businesses enabling CCTV networks for ‘live and on demand’ electronic access by law enforcement agencies.
  •     Police officers using ‘click to access’ links to tap into CCTV cameras in retail stores, banks, service areas, restaurants and cabs while an incident is unfolding, rather than manually collecting hard drives afterwards.
  •     Citizens activating hundreds of cell phones to stream live video footage direct to police monitors.
  •     Cloud computing ‘weaponized’ to assist law enforcement, with Amazon, Google, Microsoft and other owners of big computing centers immediately allocating capacity for real-time processing of critical incident data.
  •     Software that uses 2D camera frames to construct 3D models of thousands of faces ‘on the fly’, producing a quantum leap in the accuracy of real-time suspect-tracking.
  •     Officers using handheld lie-detectors to filter suspects and witnesses at crime scenes. The first generation of these devices was tested by the US military in Afghanistan as far back as 2008 and will be cheap enough for widespread police deployment. They will combine multiple biometric indicators such as voice stress analysis, skin flush detection and eye tracking to boost accuracy.
  •     Voluntary programs of community participation, with legislation following to compel citizens and businesses to make their cameras network-accessible on demand. The legislation will extend upon laws, such as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, that apply to telecommunications companies today.

“Response time is the ultimate imperative in preventing further loss of life once an attack begins,” said McCabe.

“Swarm surveillance tactics that harness community assets as immediate police resources offer a force multiplier of immense power that also happens to be extremely cost-effective.”

Substantial challenges come with the territory, including new avenues for abuse of power and a potential minefield of lobbying for privacy exemptions by certain types of business. There’s also the socially confronting scenario of police officers holding a lie detector under your nose in the street.

“Those possibilities make me and many others uncomfortable, but they don’t make the outcome any less inevitable,” said McCabe.

“Attitudes towards privacy have shifted with technology advances and people continue to trade privacy for other benefits at a rapid rate. Terrorist attacks are insidious, unpredictable, and aimed at soft targets within communities, which makes a step-change in public security a pretty compelling benefit.”

McCabe compares his vision for swarm surveillance in law enforcement to the shift to citizen journalism, where widely accessible personal technology provided the means to revolutionize the global media industry.

“Citizen-owned technology is pervasive, pre-imbedded in communities and collectively far more powerful than the surveillance assets that can be deployed by any government. The role of citizen cameras will inevitably shift from passive tools supporting the investigation after the fact, to tactical assets actively mobilized in the first response.”

McCabe tackles all of these themes in Skinjob, a 400-page techno-thriller that paints a compelling picture of policing in the near future.

About Bruce McCabe
Bruce McCabe is a writer and innovation expert. Over the past twenty years he has worked at the intersection of science, technology and society, conducting research on how new technologies are adopted in more than a thousand public and private sector enterprises. He has authored several hundred research papers and opinion pieces in the popular press, holds a PhD in computer science, and is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology in Sydney.

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Dr Bruce McCabe
Visit website