smart devices can be used in criminal investigationsIn September 2016, Caroline Nilsson emerged from her mother-in-law’s house around 10:10 p.m., gagged. The police were called, and Caroline’s mother-in-law, 57-year-old Myrna Nilsson, was found dead in the laundry room. Caroline claimed that a group of men had followed Myrna home earlier, and Caroline did not hear the attack.

The data from her mother-in-law’s Apple Watch, a smart device that tracks the wearer’s movement and heart rate, however, carried the key to unraveling Caroline’s story and solving the Australian murder case.

As more and more data-collecting, Internet-connected devices take up residence in people’s homes and on people’s wrists, the data from smart devices has been increasingly used in court as evidence to solve crimes – both in the U.S. and abroad. To explain how your smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, we’ve noted some instances when smart devices were used in such a manner. This will not only help you understand how much data these devices collect, but also show why it’s important to be a savvy shopper when it comes to IoT devices.

A continuation of the Nilsson story

Prosecutor Carmen Matteo argued that data from Myrna’s smartwatch revealed the falsity of Caroline’s account to the police. According to reporting done by ABC, Matteo argued that the watch’s heart rate and activity measurements correlated with Myrna going into shock and becoming unconscious, going on to say that the “… deceased must have been attacked at around 6:38 p.m. and had certainly died by 6:45 p.m.,” Matteo said in Adelaide Magistrates Court. If the evidence from the Apple Watch is accepted, Caroline’s emergence from her house after 10 p.m., Matteo claims, means that she had the time to clean up the murder scene between Myrna’s death and her emergence.

Smart devices can be used in criminal investigations

As the case above illustrates, smart devices have found themselves playing roles in solving crimes, and these happenings haven’t escaped the press. Here are some other similar stories that have generated buzz:

Another Apple product that may have helped provide proof

The Apple Watch isn’t the only Apple-associated product whose data’s been drawn on by prosecutors. Health data from Apple’s health app has been used in a murder case in Germany. In attempting to figure out how a victim drowned, investigators tried to turn to the suspect’s phone to see if it could unveil any clues. After the suspect refused to give his passcode to investigators, they turned to a cyber-forensics firm that broke into the device. It was found that the health app on his iPhone, which records the number of steps a user takes, showed spikes of strenuous activity, suggesting that he had been climbing stairs. Based on this information and an investigators’ reenactment, investigators claimed that the data may correlate with the suspect dragging the victim down a riverbank and then climbing back up. Furthermore, the app’s geolocation data may have also supported the theory. The suspect admitted guilt (but disputed some details) and was ultimately sentenced to life in jail.

Wondering what Apple’s policies are when it comes to disclosing your data or personal information? According to Apple, it “may be necessary” for the company to disclose your information “by law, legal process, litigation,” and it may also provide disclosure when requests are received from “public and governmental authorities within or outside your country of residence.” Apple states that it may also disclose your information if disclosure is necessary for issues of public importance (e.g., national security), for the protection of Apple’s operations and users and to enforce Apple’s terms. It’s also good to keep in mind that Apple’s websites, applications and products may have links to third-party products, which may gather information based on their own privacy practices. As such, you may want to learn about these third parties’ privacy practices, as well.

Amazon Echo

Apple products aren’t the only ones that have become a presence in courts. Other smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, such as the Amazon Echo, a personal assistant device that found its way into a starring role in a 2015 case. After a 47-year-old man’s body was found in a suspect’s hot tub in Bentonville, Arkansas, prosecutors tried to obtain recordings from the suspect’s Amazon Echo, which is voice-activated and powered by artificial intelligence. Based on information from a witness, authorities suspected that the smart device may have captured recordings that could provide valuable information – information that would shape the case’s direction.

According to Time, at first, Amazon argued against the search warrant, saying that it was “overly broad” and could “chill customers’ First Amendment rights to free speech.” Eventually, however, the suspect agreed to let Amazon provide the requested information. After the court received the Echo data, the judge dismissed the charges. This case marks the first time an AI-powered device’s data recordings were submitted as evidence in court. It should also be noted that Amazon’s current privacy notice states that Amazon will “release account and other personal information when we believe release is appropriate to comply with the law.”


It turns out that more smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, as another smart device has surfaced as a potential testifier: Fitbit. The case involves Richard Dabate, who was found in his home’s kitchen just outside Hartford, Connecticut, on Dec. 23, 2015, bleeding and half-tied to a chair. His wife, Connie Dabate, who had been shot, was found dead. Richard claimed that a masked intruder had come into his house, tortured him, chased his wife to the basement after she arrived home and murdered her. His wife’s Fitbit, a smart device that tracks movements, however, provided evidence that supported a different story. Connie’s Fitbit showed that her last movements took place at 10:05 p.m., an hour after Richard notified the police of her murder. Furthermore, if Richard’s telling of the story was true – that Connie ran from the car in her garage to the basement – it should’ve taken her no more than 125 feet to get from point A to point B. After requesting and analyzing data from Fitbit, detectives discovered that the device recorded that she had walked 1,217 feet between the time of her return to her home and the murder. As a result of the Fitbit data and the analysis of it, Dabate is being charged with his wife’s murder.

According to Fitbit’s policy, the company may disclose your information to prevent harm or for legal reasons, such as compliance with a law, legal process or governmental request. Fitbit also notifies customers if a legal process seeks their information, but the company won’t do so if the law prohibits them from providing a heads-up.

Other questions about using smart device data as evidence

Just recently, two Largo detectives walked into the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater, Florida, and, in an attempt to get access to data related to investigations of the deceased’s death, they tried to unlock the dead man’s iPhone by using his finger. While a number of people agree that what the detectives did was legal, things become more divisive when discussing the ethics behind such an act. As smart devices have begun taking the stand and become increasingly recognized as potential sources of evidence, legal and ethical points are being raised in regard to using them as proof. When considering whether or not IoT or smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, these are some considerations and issues that people have brought up in recent years:

What protections remain when someone dies?

Incidents like the one at the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home raise quandaries, including questions about what sorts of protections the deceased have. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to conduct a search of a cell phone without a warrant. However, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, Stetson Law professor Charles Rose stated that since deceased people can’t own property, a deceased person is unable to assert Fourth Amendment protections (i.e., protections of “persons, houses, papers and effects” against “unreasonable searches and seizures”). As mentioned before, while most may agree that what the detectives did was legal, some question the appropriateness of the detectives’ actions.

What is the Fourth Amendment’s role in all of this?

Currently, Fourth Amendment protections aren’t granted to some personal digital records. That’s because the law holds that when a person voluntarily discloses their information to a third party, they no longer have a “legitimate expectation of privacy.” Since some smart devices collect data and then transfer that information to third party platforms (e.g., outside servers), law enforcement can obtain a search warrant to compel third parties to turn over that recorded data. As such, when these warrants are obtained, information from the applicable smart devices can be used in criminal investigations. Some are arguing that the Fourth Amendment needs to be reviewed in light of the introduction of smart technologies.

Is the Fifth Amendment applicable to such cases?

According to CNET, several people, including Brian Jackson of the RAND Corporation, claim that the Fifth Amendment could potentially come to the defense of those caught up in certain cases, such as Ross Compton, who is being charged with arson – in part because of data from his pacemaker. However, according to CNET, in an analysis of Fisher v. United States published by Juris Magazine, the Supreme Court held that the amendment just “protects against ‘compelled self-incrimination, not [the disclosure of] private information.'”

Is the data’s quality any good?

It almost goes without saying that if smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, their data quality should be “good.” That said, topics that have been raised about data quality include data sharing and data that could be objectively incorrect. Data-sharing is one topic that’s been raised because it can result in the spreading of inaccurate information. For example, if incorrect data is copied into different data sets, this false information can spread, potentially making the incorrect data more difficult to fix than if it weren’t spread.

Do we need to think more about analytic quality?

The quality of the analyses of data is another topic that’s been brought up. Questions about the potential of biases, such as racial biases, to impact assessment tools have made their way to the circle of debate. In addition, risk assessment tools may have varying levels of predictive power, and the possibility of some automated tools missing key data because of their algorithms is a topic of concern.

What to know before buying an IOT or smart device?

While you may never be involved in a crime scene (and we certainly hope you won’t), in light of the fact that smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, there are several takeaways you may want to keep in mind before getting and using one.

  • Internet-connected devices can collect your data. For this reason, you may want to be aware of what’s being collected and shared, and it can be beneficial to learn what can be disclosed about you. A good start is to familiarize yourself with each privacy policy and terms of service relevant to your device and its usage.
  • The information that your smart device collects may not always portray your activities in the most accurate way. Take Fitbit, for example. Depending on what type of Fitbit device you use, your device can collect information pertaining to the number of steps you’ve taken, the calories you’ve burned, your heart rate, your sleep, your location and more. That said, the accuracy of these measurements is sometimes questionable. For instance, it isn’t a secret that your Fitbit’s step count can be influenced by non-walk-related movements. While your Fitbit is designed to measure motions that may correlate with walking or running, certain movements that may not correspond with either of these activities, such as arm movements you make while working at your desk, could up your step count. Your environment and weather conditions can also impact GPS data accuracy, and heart-rate readings can be influenced by your “location of wear” and “type of movement.” All these variances can affect the accuracy of the data that’s being stored about you, so it may be good to take them into consideration before buying the smart device.

Now that you know more about how your IoT devices and smart devices can be used in criminal investigations, you may be interested in finding out how you can stay safe when using technology. To kickstart your learnings, read our IoT and privacy blog.