• Dr. Timothy Smith

What Your Data May Say About You in Court

Lady Justice

Photo Source: MaxPixel

Could your data be used against you in a court of law? Many legal scholars, law enforcement officers, and attorneys consider the data collected from the diverse digital devices in homes, offices, and cars to be potentially useful in prosecuting criminal and civil cases. Many digital devices from smart speakers to fitness trackers and smartphones to onboard automobile safety systems collect information on a regular and even continuous basis. For example, Amazon’s smart speaker system called Echo listens attentively for the activation word “Alexa.” When uttered, the prompt “Alexa” activates the system called Echo, and users can request Echo to answer questions such as what the weather will be today, play a particular song, or even order something online. For Alexa to be ready to respond to a user’s voice, the system continually listens to and records the conversations in the home to learn each person’s voice and to activate the system without delay. The system essentially keeps a record of all the sounds in a house posing interesting privacy issues. Additionally, fitness trackers continuously record some vital pieces of information such as heart rate, exercise such as walking, swimming, and bicycling, calorie burning, and sleeping (fitbit.com). Combined with smartphone location data, fitness trackers provide a detailed sketch of a person’s location and activity. On board safety systems such as General Motor’s OnStar and BMW’s Assist use telematics, which means a combination of sensor technology, global positioning, and long-distance communication between the car and a central processing center collecting data about location, car performance, and even conversations inside the vehicle.

In one case, the police in Bentonville, Arkansas subpoenaed Amazon Echo for the first time as a witness in the murder of Victor Collins on November 22, 2015. Mr. Collins was found dead in the hot tub at the home of James Andrew Bates (crimefeed.com). The men along with a third man had spent the evening drinking and watching a University of Arkansas football game. Mr. Bates claims to have gone to bed early, leaving the other two in the hot tub only to awake in the morning to find Collins dead in the hot tub. The investigation surmised that Mr. Collins died by strangulation, and the owner of the home received the charge of first-degree murder. Apart from the tragedy of the case, the investigation is remarkable because it took Mr. Bates’ Amazon Echo as evidence. Investigating officers noted an Echo in Mr. Bates home. Knowing that Echo is in an always-on mode, the police subpoenaed Amazon to release any audio from that night with hopes that it could shed light on the case. Amazon subsequently on February 17, 2017 filed a motion to reject the police subpoena because it violates consumers’ privacy rights. Amazon went on to claim the state needs to prove that it shows a heightened need for the evidence to compel the company to release the records. Later, Amazon complied with the request to hand over the data when Bates (the defendant) volunteered to give the evidence to the prosecution. Even with the Amazon data, though, the prosecution requested the judge to drop all charges when they determined more than one reasonable explanation for the death. In late 2017, a judge dismissed the case against Bates due to a lack of clear evidence linking the death to him. Take note that your Echo records everything in your home twenty-four hours a day, and that the recording can be subpoenaed, shared by Amazon, and used as legal evidence in the court of law.

In another grim case, the prosecution used data from a fitness tracker to indict a man named Richard Dabate in the murder of his wife in Connecticut in December 2015. In an article by Amanda Watts for CNN, the author details how the man claimed that he and his wife suffered a home invasion in which he endured torture, and when his wife came home from the gym, she died by gunshot at the hands of the intruder. However, the police did not believe Dabate’s story and using records from her FitBit fitness tracker, cell phone activity on Facebook, and readings from the home security system, the prosecution determined that his wife, Connie Dabate, was active, online, and moving around the house an hour after Mr. Debate claims she had been killed. Furthermore, the police could not find any evidence of forced entry into the house or physical evidence of another person on or around the property. In January of this year, the case remains in the court with Debate free on $1 million bail (Hartford Courant). Police continue to gather more electronic evidence.

Telematics systems like General Motors’ OnStar provide rich data on automobile location, engine status, and even can record conversations inside the car. In fact, police and federal investigators have tapped these systems for years to track and eavesdrop on suspected criminals. For example, in Forbes, the staff writer Thomas Fox-Brewster notes a long history of police using telematics data to track and arrest drug dealers. Fox-Brewster includes that in 2014 New York police issued a warrant that requested SiriusXM to activate and track the satellite radio in a Toyota 4-Runner that connected to alleged illegal gambling. Another case involved police using OnStar tracking to follow the movements between Texas and Louisiana of the suspected cocaine dealer Riley Dantzler. The police eventually stopped the suspect and found Dantzler in possession of cocaine, ecstasy, and a gun.

Digital devices such as cellphones, smart speaker systems, fitness trackers, and onboard automobile safety systems provide convenience and security, but they also record vast amounts of information about you that can prove very useful in court and for law enforcement. Smart speaker systems such as Amazon Echo record conversations inside people’s homes that can be subpoenaed as in the case of murder in Arkansas. Furthermore, fitness trackers like FitBit and onboard safety systems like OnStar provide activity and location data that can be used to corroborate or refute an alibi such as the case of the murder of Connie Dabate in Connecticut in 2015. Accepting the benefits of these digital technologies comes with a relinquishing of privacy in our homes and automobiles that we should consider very carefully in our own lives and the courts.

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Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

Dr. Timothy Smith