They're watching you: smart appliances used to bust criminals

From activity trackers to smart speakers, the evidence gathered by the electronic eyes and ears of home devices is being used to solve crimes

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
The voice interactive Amazon Echo smart speaker has been used to solve crimes in the US.
The voice interactive Amazon Echo smart speaker has been used to solve crimes in the US.
Image: Supplied

Fridges, watches, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, door bells, phones, Fitbits, smart cars, televisions, gaming consoles, coffee makers and cupboards - yes, the list is growing on a daily basis - all of these devices will shortly be able to monitor you, record your movements and be used as evidence to solve crimes. Some of them, like intelligent light bulbs, already can.

The Internet of Things (IoT) means that you can be tracked almost all of the time. While this may give you that creepy feeling of being constantly watched, it is helping investigators sift out truth from fiction when interviewing suspects in crimes that have taken place in the home.

According to tech publication The Ambient, in the UK, detectives are being trained to look for connected home devices that could hold clues to crimes committed in the home.

Clive Halperin, a London-based tech expert, thinks the use of evidence garnered from homes will help to create "smart" crime scenes. "I think [IoT devices] will help generate a lot more evidence," he told The Ambient. "When things are constantly connected to the internet, it's going to provide a huge amount of data for crime solving. People will constantly leave electronic 'trails' wherever they go."

In December 2015, Connecticut, US, resident Richard Dabate told police a masked intruder assaulted him and killed his wife in their home. His wife's Fitbit told another story. Her Fitbit showed her walking around the house well after the time her husband said she was shot. When her phone was checked detectives found a list titled: "Why I Want a Divorce." Dabate was eventually charged with the murder.

James Bates told police that a friend, former police officer Victor Collins, had accidentally drowned in his hot tub in Arkansas, US. Detectives found Collins's battered body floating in a blood-stained hot tub and suspected Bates was lying. They retrieved data from Bates's Amazon Echo device and he was charged with murder.

The Guardian reported the case of Ross Compton who said he was sleeping when his house in Middletown, Ohio, US, caught fire in September 2016. He said he grabbed some possessions and jumped out a window. Investigators pulled data from his pacemaker which undermined Compton's account. He has been charged with aggravated arson and insurance fraud.

Just imagine the implications for crimes that happen in South Africa if our devices can be used to monitor us and the data collected from them used in court to convict perpetrators sooner.

We're getting there: evidence from Jason Rohde's and Oscar Pistorius's smartphones was admitted to court. And surely the Van Breda family were affluent enough to afford a few smart home devices. If only they'd been on the market here a few years ago. There are many, less high-profile cases that would benefit from the use of "detective tech".

But as our tech gets smarter, so will criminals. I challenge your criminal mind to think of the possibilities of using the electronic eyes and ears of home devices against them to set up perfect crimes in yet another case of man versus machine. Imagine the court proceedings: Rudi vs the Robot. So if you think that connected devices may soon offer us a crime-free future, you may well have to think again.

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