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Social nets could hold wealth of info on Boston bombers

As manhunt is on for surviving suspect, their social nets could hold critical clues

Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the suspects in the marathon bombing, is still on the run. (Image: FBI) As the manhunt goes on for the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, the bombers' social networks could give investigators needed clues about them.

The City of Boston, along with neighboring Watertown, Newton and Cambridge, are in lock down, with residents warned to stay inside their homes with their doors locked as Boston police and federal agents hunt for suspected bomber 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev.

Tsarnaev has been on the run since he and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, allegedly killed an MIT police officer and carjacked an SUV late Thursday night. The older brother, Tamerlan, was killed during a shootout with police.

Both brothers are believed to be behind the two bombs that went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday. The blasts killed three people and injured more than 170 others.

Now that the brothers have been identified, investigators are looking for information about the two men.

Their social networks could hold a wealth of information.

"These suspects were reasonably active on social media and it looks like investigators have been picking up these threads and using them to push the investigation forward," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "All of the information on these sites goes toward building a picture of these guys and putting together the entire story."

While Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a YouTube channel, his younger brother Djohar appears to have maintained an account on VK.com , a social network popular in in Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Israel.

On the VK.com site, Djohar listed Boston as his current city and posted that he is a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public school in Cambridge, Mass.

Under his "world view," Tsarnaev lists "Islam" and adds that his personal priority is "career and money."

Most of the page, which today has been filled with mostly angry comments, is not written in English.

However, Keith Jones, an independent computer forensics examiner, said he's sure investigators have gone through the social networking page, looking not only for Tsarnaev's views and mind set, but also for his group affiliations, as well as his list of online friends.

"If I was a police officer, I would be looking at social media," Jones said. "As soon as these guys were suspects, their sites were worth a look at... As an investigative tool, it's great."

He added that social networks could help investigators figure out who knows who on the social network, the suspect's friends and possible places where he might be hiding. It also could give them ideas about who they interview to get more information on the suspects.

"In most cases, computer evidence isn't the smoking gun," Jones said. "What it is, though, is the complete picture behind the smoking gun."

Brooke Fisher Liu, an associate professor and researcher on social networks at the University of Maryland, said since there's a manhunt on for the younger Tsarnaev, his social network page may be particularly useful.

She explained that many young people are post on their favorite social networking site where they go on a daily basis. Investigators can look at this site and see where he's comfortable going and where he might have friends or groups that would take him in.

"If the information is out there, [law enforcement] is going to go look for it," Liu said. "

Olds also noted that Tsarnaev's VK.com page could give law enforcement a direction to search in.

"They'll look for relatives, friends, sympathizers, and even acquaintances, probably making contact with them and asking if they have any idea where this guy might be and who else might be involved," he added. "As the authorities track down their network, a fuller picture will emerge."

Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, shown in this FBI image at the marathon on Monday. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died early Friday in a shootout with police.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.


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