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Smart Witnesses

Have you heard that an Amazon Echo smart home device could become a key witness in a homicide investigation? Incredible, isn’t it? However, connected devices are playing an increasingly important role in solving crime.

Former cop Victor Collins died in Andrew Bates’ whirlpool. Was it really a tragic accident, as Bates claims? According to him, he fell asleep before the time of death, but forensics doctors found signs of a struggle on the body and traces of blood in the pool. So was it homicide? It’s difficult to pin the crime on him as the men were alone – or at least no other people were present. For this reason, the police are relying on a very special witness: The digital voice assistant Alexa, who was in the same room in an Amazon Echo network speaker. The investigators hope that the audio recordings can give valuable clues as to what actually happened. This is because Bates could have used the network device to have operated the lighting, the garage door, or the heating with a voice command. If that were to have happened shortly before Collins died, Bates could be found guilty of lying. The only stumbling block is that the voice recordings are stored in the cloud, and Amazon doesn’t want to cough them up.

Echo as a silent observer

Alexa is also at the center of another homicide case. A court in the US state of New Hampshire is currently investigating a double homicide that happened in January 2017 where two women of 32 and 48 years of age were killed. The investigators suspect that the homicide took place in the kitchen, where an Echo speaker was also present and which could have recorded the crime. On the one hand, these cases show that the police need to rethink their approach and evaluate digital data more often to get to the truth about what happened. On the other hand, more and more people are buying these digital eavesdroppers oblivious to the fact that they can be used against them.

The microphone on most Echo speakers is listening the whole time – unless you’ve intentionally disabled it.

When your BMW snitches on you

The district court of Cologne, Germany, convicted a customer of the BMW car sharing service DriveNow of negligent homicide. The man apparently crashed into a cyclist, causing fatal injuries. Using the digital information, which among other things was generated by the cellphone card integrated into the car, the court reconstructed his route as well as the excessive speed at which the car was traveling. And in the US, fitness tracker data was used in court to refute a woman’s allegations of rape. She claimed to have been threatened by an intruder in the middle of the night while she was asleep and forced to have sex. In actual fact though, the fitness tracker’s movement data revealed that she was wide awake at the time.

Even modern cars record often racy information, such as the speed at which you are driving.

Digital footprints everywhere

The cases show that we leave digital footprints wherever we go and whatever we do. The computer has long since been a firm fixture of the desktop, and now almost everyone always has their smartphone ready to hand – plus, the ominous Internet of Things is gradually infiltrating all aspects of our life. Virtually every device connected to the Internet is voraciously sucking up user data non-stop, so much so that you can retrace what someone does during the day with almost 100% accuracy. Here are just a few examples:

  • When we wake up: such as to using a smartphone alarm. Or when we go online for the first time, such as to read the morning newspaper
  • Where we go: Smartphones and modern cars record every movement in detail.
  • What interests us: Our browsing activities, no matter on which device, paint a detailed picture about us.


Churning out data thick and fast: Your smartphone

The holy Grail for forensic scientists is and remains to be the smartphone. Updating contacts and appointments, taking photos, surfing the Internet, and of course chatting: These smart devices keep track of every minute detail of our life. Entries and texts that have been manually deleted can often be recovered weeks or even months later. This is one of the reasons why there has been a dramatic increase in the significance of digital footprints used as evidence in criminal proceedings. Carola Jeschke, press spokesperson of the State Criminal Police Office in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, says: “Nowadays, it would be virtually inconceivable to conduct an investigation that didn’t involve the securing, examination, and evaluation of digital footprints.” Carola believes that smartphones are just the beginning. She adds: “With the Internet of Things, the number of sources of digital footprints is growing constantly.”

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