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Smart Devices Providing Helpful Evidence in Crime Solving

Smart Devices Providing Helpful Evidence in Crime Solving
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By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, InCyberDefense

Smart devices such as Fitbit physical activity trackers and Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa are designed for convenience. Fitbit trackers, for example, can monitor your heartbeat and geographic location, record the number of steps you take each day, and calculate how many calories you burn daily. Similarly, smart assistants such as Alexa can provide you with music and weather reports, as well as news updates and language translations.

The information that smart devices collect is useful, but these devices are a security risk sometimes. According to CNN, the U.S. military had to reconsider its security policies when it was revealed that a smartphone app was giving away the locations of people as they exercised and posing a security risk to Fitbit users on military bases. Smart devices have also been used by domestic abusers for digital gaslighting.

However, smart devices have proven useful for law enforcement. In some cases, the data that smart devices collect has provided evidence that has been introduced in court.

Apple Watch Helps to Catch an Australian Suspect

In September 2016, Australian grandmother Myrna Nilsson was found dead in her Adelaide home. Her daughter-in-law, Caroline, claimed that Myrna had died after the house was invaded by a group of male attackers and that she got into an argument with the men before the attack occurred.

But Caroline’s story didn’t add up. Data from Myrna’s Apple Watch revealed that her physical activity and heart rate measurements were not consistent with Caroline’s statement and that Myrna was “almost certainly dead” by 6:45 p.m. that same day. The case is still pending.

Myrna’s story is not unique, either. Information from a victim’s Fitbit was also used to charge a Connecticut man with his wife’s murder in 2017.

Surrendering Information from Smart Devices to Law Enforcement: Privacy Violation or Not?

With all the data that smart devices collect, it appears likely that there may be more privacy conflicts in the future. In 2016, for example, Apple famously refused to help the FBI unlock an iPhone that belonged to an alleged terrorist.

Companies such as Fitbit have privacy policy language that states that the information their smart device collects can be used to “respond to a legal request or claim.” But if a smart device could provide useful evidence of a criminal act, law enforcement officers would need to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause.

In regard to using smart devices to convict criminals in court cases, legal issues and privacy rights are still evolving. Criminal justice expert Dr. Jarrod Sadulski of AMU’s School of Security and Global Studies notes, “The use of smart devices in criminal investigations provides an invaluable tool as it merges technology with a person’s actions. Investigators can pinpoint the location of suspects in real time through the use of smart devices.

“The issue is the balance between a citizen’s Constitutional right of privacy and the need to collect real-time data for investigators, such as in kidnapping incidents. The extent that exigency applies to using these devices is likely to be spotlighted in court cases for years to come.”