How Your Smart Device Could Testify Against You

Alexa, do you swear to give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?


Data from smart devices is increasingly helping law enforcement build criminal cases. With the growth of the internet of things market, smart connected devices play a vital role in our day to day lives now. From fitness trackers, voice assistants and smartwatches to cameras in our fridges, doorbells, and not excluding wearable medical devices - there is a lot of data out there being gathered about our lives. More so than we probably realise. These ‘things’ could play a vital role in criminal prosecution by tracking either victim’s or perpetrator’s movements and collecting incriminating data points.

Ross Compton was recently found guilty of arson and insurance fraud after the data from his pacemaker was investigated and used against him in court. The evidence was stacked against him regardless; his house smelt like gasoline, fires began in multiple areas around the home, and his medical condition rendered his version of events inconsistent. Compton said he packed his bags, computer, and charger, and broke a window to escape the fire, but not only did a medical professional say his medical condition would be problematic in that tale, but the data of his pacemaker, which police were granted a warrant to look at, revealed evidence to prove his recounting of events incorrect. The judge ruled against Compton’s defense who tried to argue that using such personal data was a violation of his privacy. The data contained information on his heart rate before, during and after the fire.

Pacemaker data has also influenced other court cases, such as in Middletown US, where they were used to narrow down the time of death, aiding the investigation.

Richard Dabate, accused of murdering his wife has come up against her FitBit data which showed inconsistent evidence of her movements after her alleged murder took place, not matching up to Dabate’s version of events. After staging a break in and harming himself superficially - he did not account for the data showing his wife’s movements taking place after the time he stated she was murdered.

It’s not just data we’re amassing from our bodies like pacemakers and activity trackers but smart devices in the home too. Amazon’s Echo recently brought up ethical questions surrounding our data privacy in the case of James Bates who was investigated for the murder of his coworker. Recordings made by the device following a ‘wake’ word records what you say and sends back to Amazon’s servers. Amazon is working to take steps to protect this data, and want police to go through several requirements before having the right to access this... (or we could be really cynical and take it that Amazon purely wants to ensure they keep up sales numbers). However, police obtained these records following Bates’ cooperation. Also used in this case were readings from his smart water meter, which recorded a surge in use of water during 1 am and 3 am, which investigators say had potentially been used to hose the patio down of evidence.

The more we rely on smart devices to regulate all aspects of our daily lives such as conversational assistants, medical technology, and fitness trackers and body monitors - the harder it would be to hide the truth in certain circumstances. These devices are meant to be making our lives easier, and more manageable, not making us wary of all our movements.

Our data footprints are huge. On a daily basis, we are creating a huge data set of our activities, where we go, how long we sleep for and even how well we sleep… and it’s not surprising that prosecutors and law enforcement are seeing the value of this data when it comes to investigating crimes and bringing criminals to justice.

This use of data does not come without raising a few important issues surrounding data privacy though, and laws surely will need to be re-written or re-worded to make way for the use of this new technology in criminal cases. How can this kind of data be used, in accordance with the fifth amendment if they have the right to be protected from being a witness against themselves in a criminal case? For medical devices, the HIPAA medical privacy act surely needs to be rethought in accordance with digital medicine and the use of our bodily data? There are many laws intrinsic to the protection of a range of our personal data that would need a new approach as data obtained from personal trackers and smart devices begin to be used more frequently in criminal cases.

Will you stop using this technology because of the invasive nature? Or do you even need to care if you have nothing to hide? 


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