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Homicide in the age of Amazon

How smart speakers and wearables are changing detective work

In April 2017, Richard Dabate was charged with the murder of his wife, Connie. His story that a man who looked and sounded like Vin Diesel had broken into their home, attacked him and shot his wife was undermined after detectives pulled data from the victim's Fitbit. Richard Dabate's version of events, built on panic-alarm notifications and work emails, was disassembled by a very different timeline, based on the amount of steps Connie Dabate took towards her death.

Earlier this year, in a separate case,data from an Amazon Echowas used as part of a murder investigation in Arkansas. After Victor Collins' body was found in his friend James Bates' pool, prosecutors pointed to information from the accused's Nest water meter to argue that someone had used the garden hose to clear water off a patio. The authorities' attempts to further access information from Bates' Amazon Echo which may have picked up recordings of the crime via its built-in microphone were blocked by the company until Bates himself gave permission for the evidence to be handed over.

The hope, at least for Bates, was that the Amazon Echo could be an alibi; that data from the smart speaker would exonerate him of the murder of his friend. The court case is ongoing.

There's an increasing number of sensors on our wrists, on the walls of our homes, in our pockets, on our mantlepieces, and these machines tell stories that detectives can use to build, or break apart, investigations. The rise in theInternet of Things is leading to a new era of police work, where the established fields of forensics and witness testimony are coming up against prevalent data gathering, voice recognition and movement monitoring.

"Increasingly, with the Internet of Things, there will be data streams which could be analysed forensically, and which could piece together an investigation," says Professor Allan J Brimicombe, a director of the British Society of Criminology and head of the Centre for Geo-Information Studies at the University of East London.

"Say, for example, a burglar breaks a window to get into a house. The temperature in the house drops. Well, that's going to be recorded, so you would be able to fix the time of burglary much more accurately than with someone who says I left the house at 10am and came back 10pm to find the window broken and things gone'."

This ability for sensors to pinpoint times and locations could be the Internet of Things' greatest contribution to investigations. Brimicombe adds that if you ask ten people what happened in a car accident, you'll get ten different stories. "Whereas the data is the data. If cars had black boxes, you may get a more objective take on what happened."

Reading evidence from the data

Autonomous cars could change things with onboard computers capable of logging a vehicle's every lurch. Yet if the proliferation of in-built tracking devices really does become the new backbone of police work, what does that mean for the way investigators handle testimony? In a city of a million sensors, what happens to human witnesses?

Marion Oswald, senior fellow in law at the University of Winchester, believes detectives won't be directing all their questions to smart homes just yet. "The evidence is not the pure data from the technology," she stresses. "It's evidence given based on the interrogation and interpretation of the data log, so witness testimony will remain important. In fact, it might become even more important as the way these technologies generate data is complicated and opaque.

"For instance, we've recently seen a case in Ohio wheredata from a pacemaker was used to prosecute a man for arson," she notes. "But this case needed a cardiologist to interpret the heart-rate data and compare it to the defendant's explanation of what he was doing at the time."

In that example, a cardiologist might have been able to build a narrative using medical information, but the increasing frequency of home hubs, fitness trackers and smart meters in investigations requires a technical skillset that might be further out of reach for many detectives and lawyers. Brimicombe suggests that a "new breed of IT expert witnesses" is possible, but there are likely to be multiple barriers to any standardisation of this in court. As Oswald points out: "You will have to provide robust explanations of how the system works, and these technologies are changing and developing all the time."

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