‘Alexa, Who Murdered Your Owner?’

More than ever, digital equipment is an extensive part of a crime scene. In the past decade, data flowing from fitness trackers, virtual assistants, biometric locks, pacemakers, smart meters, and more have been used as evidence in courts worldwide. The crime scene of today is as much digital as it is physical.

An episode in the first season of legal tv show The Good Fight shows an attorney for the DA’s office attempting to confiscate a smart speaker to obtain information needed for a grand jury indictment, at which point a character of the show quickly orders the assistant to delete all data. Most of the data the attorneys require would not be on the device itself but it is stored on cloud servers. (Presumably, the Amazon Echo stand-in would give the attorneys in this fictional universe access to that storage.) There is a myriad of examples where companies like Amazon have been asked for such information in criminal cases. After a double murder in the state of New Hampshire, Amazon refused to hand over that data to law enforcement, as the company stated the request was overly broad (one might even go so far as to call it a fishing expedition) and there was no legal binding reason to hand over that data. A judge later ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings.

In other words, Amazon will protect the privacy of its users, unless the law requires otherwise. Or if the company itself requires privacy to take a back seat to improve the service. Such is the case in the transcription by human personnel of Alexa recordings in which the smart assistant misunderstands the commands spoken by the user. A Bloomberg report caused a stir last year when it revealed Amazon listened to those random audio snippets to improve its AI. Employees witnessed all sorts of criminal acts but were told it was not Amazon’s job to interfere. After the ruckus, people were surprised to learn that humans were listening to smart speaker recordings, as one company after another admitted to the practice. For instance, Apple was forced to apologize for using Siri in this exact manner, while Google downplayed the practice after Flemish public broadcaster VRT revealed that it had acquired thousands of audio files of unintended calls to the Google Home device. 

Proving premeditation

Amazon eventually handed over the requested data in the double murder case, as a judge ordered the company hand over data connected to the Echo device – the smart speaker that runs Alexa. Law enforcement was hoping to catch incriminating details like questions to Alexa about the murder, disposing of a body, et cetera. That isn’t so far-fetched as it might sound – there have been cases where search terms have been used to prove premeditation, such as a case in The Netherlands, way back in 2013. Hours before a woman murdered her two sons with an overdose of medication prescribed to her, she had consulted Google about the effects of an overdose and how one might kill themselves in such a manner. This evidence was used to prove murder one as opposed to manslaughter.

There are plenty of similar cases, such as a bizarre death in Florida, where the police sought to obtain Alexa’s data to see if there was an altercation before the victim was impaled on a bedpost. Or perhaps the most famous case, the first one that gained worldwide attention when the authorities requested to retrieve Alexa’s recording: the infamous ‘Hot Tub Murder’. The suspect, after some legal wrangling with Amazon, decided to hand over the data himself, stating he had nothing to do with the strangulation of his friend in a hot tub behind the suspect’s house. The charge was eventually dropped.

More digital evidence subpoenaed

Last year, TechCrunch reported that warrants and subpoenas for data flowing from Alexa, Ring, and Kindle devices have gone up substantially. So it’s not just virtual assistants that get the attention of law enforcement in murder cases; it’s a plethora of digital equipment that provides clues to murders, robberies, and other crimes. In fact, in the prior example of the double murder in New Hampshire, the police also used information read off a biometric lock at the back door, to prove that the defendant knew the victims very well, as they were also programmed into the device as main users of the lock.

Other devices that are of interest in criminal cases are smart fitness trackers. In the case of the murder of Karen Navarra, the data her Fitbit Alta HR recorded not only established an exact time of death but it also registered a peak in heart rate just before precipitously dropping, showing the exact moment she was fatally stabbed. Interestingly, Fitbit did not require a subpoena, but settled for a search warrant and worked with the police to extract the precise data the authorities required. The latter combined this health data with surveillance footage, which showed there was one other person present at the exact moment of the fatal stabbing. Her 90-year-old stepfather had allegedly claimed he had left the residence earlier than the footage established. The Fitbit data clinched it for the prosecutors: it showed the exact moment Navarra was stabbed and the footage proved the suspect was present at that precise moment. The elderly man later died before he could be tried for the homicide, and the case was dismissed

Smart house (not so) silent witness

There are more stories of Fitbits used to prove or disprove a suspect’s version of events. Another famous incident involves a man who, in 2015, told police a robber had shot and killed his wife, while Fitbit data showed she was still alive and active an hour after the alleged shooting. Police collected more digital evidence in that case, for example, a smartphone belonging to the victim that had a list on it containing reasons she was seeking a divorce, which – along with Facebook messages to the husband’s pregnant girlfriend – proved motive. Also, a supposed smart intrusion alarm that had forced the husband to come home had not been activated as he claimed, records from that system showed. Recently, the prosecution also included Google searches by the defendant such as, “deadly over the counter pill combinations,” “ethylene glycol”, “how much ethylene glycol is lethal”, “fast untraceable poisen (sic)”, “RICIN”, “purchase RICIN”, “RICIN recipe”, “tasteless poison easily available”, “how to use antifreeze as poison”, and “which antifreeze States (sic) sweet”, writes a local NBC affiliate covering the trial that is currently ongoing. In all, a host of digital devices were used to prove motive, means, and opportunity.

In the aforementioned case of the Hot Tub Murder, the house in question was fully equipped with several smart devices, such as a Nest thermostat, WeMo devices for the lights, an internet-connected security system, a smart water meter, and wireless weather monitoring. The police seized the equipment, along with three tablets, an iPhone, a MacBook Pro, and a PlayStation. The department subsequently collected data recorded by the water meter from the municipal water department. They did not use a warrant for that request, much to the chagrin of privacy advocates. The smart meter recorded an ‘excessive amount’ of water being used in the dead of the night, which to police proved a suspicious filling of the hot tub at a strange time of day. The suspect maintained the tub was filled earlier that day, and that the smart meter may have switched the AM and PM in its timestamp.

Digital trail all around us

Smart devices record all manner of data that are of interest to law enforcement in the case of criminal acts. A smart fridge, smart meter, or smart washing machine can prove the activity of a person and establish a timeline. Interactions with a streaming service like Netflix or Videoland could confirm an alibi. And these are just home devices. Logs from OV-chip devices, ANPR camera systems, and more can be used to pinpoint a suspect’s movements. Or even medical devices can provide clues for crime scene investigators. Three years ago, a pacemaker was used to prove an arsonist couldn’t have done what he claimed – namely, gathering his belongings and escaping his burning house – with his heart condition. It was used as evidence he set the fire to the house himself and left in a timely manner, with his belongings already outside. More than ever, the crime scene has become digital, as society moves from an analog world to one where most things take place online.