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Caught by a Smart Device

As technology continues to change our lives, the need to adapt these technologies into investigations is shaping the future of law enforcement. The internet of things (IoT) is a rapidly growing phenomenon spurred by the growth of smart devices. As the cost and availability of broadband internet is becoming consumer friendly, IoT is impacting our lives at home and work.

So, what is the internet of things? The simple answer is it is any device that has that ability to connect to the internet. This includes cell phones, refrigerators, light bulbs, pet feeders, Alexa/Echo/Google home assistants, wearable devices, and numerous other smart devices. Conservative estimate state there will be 30 billion smart devices by 2020.

As prices for many of these devices has decreased and integration between these devices is growing, the push to have a smart home is increasing. Today consumers can purchase numerous DIY home security systems that rely on the IoT concept to operate. In addition to security, these devices can be the brain center to turn on lights, unlock doors, open the garage door, adjust the thermostat. These devices also monitor for water leaks, smoke, and can send live streaming video on demand as needed.

With the growth of digital home assistants; these devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, integrate with other IoT devices and allow users to order products online, play games, start their car, adjust the thermostat, turn off lights, and more. Another rapidly growing IoT device is the Ring doorbell. The increase of package thefts nationwide has led many homeowners to install the Ring.

This gives the owner the ability to capture movement on HD video or see who is at the door even when they are not home. 1 million video doorbells were sold in 2016, and that number has grown in 2017.

Cellphones, Smart Watches, and fitness devices make up the wearable device category for IoT. Smart Phones could be considered to be the first IoT devices as fast data speeds have enabled data to pass from Bluetooth enabled devices to the phone and ultimately to servers storing the data. Today our phones can tell us where we parked our car, tell our smart house to arm or disarm security based on location data, track our movement for health, or provide a connection for apps that provide various IoT features. Smart Watches are now integrated with cellular data capabilities, giving them the same functionality as cell phones. Over 10 million Fitbits were sold in 2016, giving consumers the ability to track their fitness and store the data on the internet to review or share with their friends.

So how can all these devices help law enforcement? One word, user data. These devices are creating numerous records, voice recordings, and providing location data in order to fully utilize IoT. Despite a somewhat newer technology, some law enforcement agencies have used these devices to assist in a few murder cases.

In late 2016, Amazon’s Echo fell into the center of a legal battleground. James Bates was accused of killing his friend after a small gathering at Bates’s house. According to Bates, he left his friend in the hot tub around 1 am and found his friend deceased in the hot tub later that morning. Evidence of a struggle on the victim and around the hot tub led officers to suspect there was a fight. As Bate’s owned many smart devices, the Amazon Echo became a piece of evidence. After sending a search warrant to Amazon for the recordings, Amazon fought back and would not release the data. Bates eventually agreed to release the data and the trial is still pending.

From this incident law enforcement learned a few things. The smart meter attached to Bates water utility line showed an unusual amount of water used between 1am and 3am. Most utility lines today are smart meters that can provide hour to hour usage data. Secondly, authorities most likely learned that Echo isn’t constantly recording information. The device only begins recording when the trigger word is used and then only records for a few seconds. In my opinion, this is why the defense agreed to release the recordings as there was most likely no evidence stored on the device. Lastly this case has proved how difficult the technology companies will fight law enforcement in releasing information.

Another case involving IoT devices is the murder of Connie Dabate. Her husband, Richard, claims that an intruder entered their home and murdered Connie and then tortured Richard. Richard claimed that he told his wife to run but she was shot. However, investigators obtained data from the victims Fit Bit, which showed her exercise activity varied from the story.

Her Fit Bit continued to show movement over an hour after the suspect claimed she was shot and killed. In addition, data from the alarm system did not match Richard’s story that an intruder set off the intrusion alarm.

These two examples are proof that crime scenes are evolving from gathering computers and cell phones. Smart devices are creating the need to look further when collecting evidence. Whether home cameras, an Echo, or a FitBit; the data these devices leave on the cloud can be detrimental to an investigation. Check back soon for a IoT class coming in April 2018.

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