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In the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol riots, one of the biggest challenges for the government has been sifting through the mountains of evidence in order to charge those who allegedly broke the law. There are tens of thousands of hours of videos as well as social media posts. A group of volunteer sleuths has stepped in to help the government in an unprecedented way. NPR's Tim Mak has more.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: They call themselves by a number of names. Some go by the moniker Sedition Hunters. Others call themselves Deep State Dogs. There are hundreds of people who since January 6 have dedicated themselves to helping law enforcement track down suspects.
KAY: I saw an attempted coup happen, and I never want to see that again. So for me, it was, what can I do to help prevent this?
MAK: Kay, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother in Washington state is a Sedition Hunter who asked that her last name not be revealed.
KAY: My Twitter account is OSINTyeti - O-S-I-N-T. It stands for open-source intelligence. And yeti is Bigfoot.
MAK: She has spent hundreds of hours looking at publicly available or open-source videos from that day.
KAY: And, you know, I don't live anywhere near D.C. I have no political power. I'm just an ordinary person, really. But this was something I felt I could do.
MAK: Hundreds of volunteers just like Kay got to work, resulting in a spontaneous information collection and analysis effort with no precedent in history. Kay began annotating videos, creating a spreadsheet where things spotted in videos could be listed - a person wearing a pink hat, for example. By using these cues, volunteers could compare different video angles to identify people committing alleged crimes. Tommy Carstensen, a Danish citizen, said he's watched thousands of videos since January. One of the things he did was analyze the music playing in the background of some of these videos.
TOMMY CARSTENSEN: Someone later created a playlist. And then, you know, if you heard Elton John, you would know, OK, this is at 2 p.m., right? And then you could say, OK, this individual was at that location at this time and so forth.
MAK: And these sleuths have had some success. For example, the group Deep State Dogs was able to identify the person who allegedly tased Capitol Police Officer Michael Fanone near the Capitol steps.
FORREST ROGERS: I then went and looked at all of the footage and single-framed the incident.
MAK: That's Forrest Rogers, a member of the Deep State Dogs. Law enforcement later publicly identified that individual as Daniel Rodriguez, who has since been charged with serious offenses such as assaulting a federal officer with a dangerous weapon.
ROGERS: We located the suspect throughout that event, where he was carrying the taser in his hand. Also, we found him with a frontal. And then we put it together as a compilation, submitted it to the FBI to make it easier for them to indeed identify.
MAK: Crowdsourced information pops up repeatedly in the hundreds of criminal cases filed in response to the January 6 attacks. Sedition Hunters are mentioned by name in at least 13 cases, and many others refer to evidence voluntarily submitted by tipsters, citing information on public platforms like Facebook, YouTube or Parler. It's a new digital twist on a longtime law enforcement tool, Rogers explains.
ROGERS: Even if it came back to the Wild West times of wanted posters, that's a form of open-source intelligence, where they just have a sketch of the bank robber. It's just because of the internet that open-source intelligence is becoming much more lucrative when it comes to identifying people.
MAK: Some of these volunteer sleuths, such as Carstensen, have also turned to facial recognition software, which he acknowledges has its shortcomings.
CARSTENSEN: I don't really like facial recognition when it's put in the hands of, say, governments, say, China monitoring the Uyghurs. But in this case, it's all public video from a public location.
MAK: Federal law enforcement is also independently employing this technology in order to make the case against January 6 suspects. But civil liberties advocates like Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation say that even if the technology can be used for positive ends, the fundamental tool is dangerous.
ADAM SCHWARTZ: We know that many politicians and many police departments with this power would be, frankly, more likely to go after Black Lives Matter protesters than to go after insurrectionists.
MAK: Schwartz said that it was notable that law enforcement was so openly using facial recognition technology to support criminal cases and that doing so now may be strategic.
SCHWARTZ: It is common for the law enforcement community to try to work the public in favor of a surveillance technology by not talking much about the technology until the right sympathetic case comes along. And then they talk about it a lot.
MAK: But livestreaming as well as public posts, including videos and photos, are realities of mass political events in our time. So the use of crowdsourcing and facial recognition will likely be used again in the future. Tim Mak, NPR News.
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