From connected refrigerators to digital assistants and smart thermostats, the internet of things (IoT) is quickly transforming the way we interact with the world around us—and that transformation is just getting started. Adoption rates of internet-connected “smart” devices in every category are swelling, and the universe of those devices is expanding rapidly, with new products being brought to market seemingly every day. However, these devices aren’t just changing the way consumers lead their day-to-day lives. They’re also making a tremendous impact for law enforcement professionals.
IoT devices leverage tremendous amounts of data to bring unprecedented efficiencies and convenience to the lives of the consumers who use them. The average consumer doesn’t think much about this data, happy to let it operate behind the scenes. However, for law enforcement agencies and criminal investigators, this data can represent a vast virtual treasure trove of digital evidence. And in a world where criminals are constantly developing sophisticated new tools and techniques for hiding their tracks, that digital evidence can make all the difference in an investigation.
Take digital assistants, for example. Although most digital assistants must be activated with a trigger word—e.g., Ok, Google, add milk to my shopping list, or Alexa, play some music—that doesn’t mean that they’re not doing anything when no one is speaking to them. These systems must constantly listen to the environment around them, so that they’re ready to get to work when the trigger word is spoken. In many cases, the digital assistant doesn’t just listen for nearby human speech, it also records that speech, and uses that data to continually improve its ability to understand the words being spoken. For law enforcement officials, recordings like these are often an invaluable resource in the fight against crime.
Case in point: In 2017, a vicious double homicide in New Hampshire prompted local police to seek access to the audio recordings captured by an Amazon Echo found at the scene. Investigators had already cultivated strong circumstantial evidence against their prime suspect, who was alleged to have killed two women whom he suspected were police informants assisting authorities in a drug trafficking investigation. However, direct evidence of his role in the brutal attack proved elusive—or at least it did, until they considered using the Amazon Echo. Prosecutors argued that the judge should grant them access to data recorded by the device, hoping it would provide conclusive evidence. The judge agreed.
“The court finds there is probable cause to believe the server(s) and/or records maintained for or by Amazon.com contain recordings made by the Echo smart speaker from the period of Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, 2017…and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen,” the ruling stated.
Amazon never got the chance to comply with that order, as the case eventually ended in a mistrial for unrelated reasons. And it’s important to note that the company may have ultimately refused the order, just as many of its tech company rivals have refused similar requests from law enforcement to grant access to encrypted device data. Apple found itself in a similar position following the San Bernardino terrorist attack of 2015, when law enforcement sought access to a suspect’s iPhone. Apple refused to comply, but law enforcement found a back door with help from digital forensics software—highlighting how the growth of IoT is making the relationship between tech companies, citizens, and digital forensics investigators increasingly complex.
The fact is that these tech companies will always have strong incentives to resist sharing digital evidence with investigators, despite the enormous good that evidence can do in helping bring criminals to justice. Consumers will always want the assurance that their private data will never end up in someone else’s hands, even if that “someone else” is a group of highly-trained law enforcement professionals working toward a just cause. Fortunately, software solutions like Oxygen Forensic Detective can give investigators the tools they need to sidestep tech company reticence entirely, and gain access to the evidence they need.