Wiretaps on home phones, recording incriminating conversations. Thermal-imaging sensors picking up clues of indoor drug-growing operations from the street. Parabolic microphones tracking conversations through walls. As technology advances, so do the means for authorities to detect crime.
Now, with the rapidly expanding range of “smart” technologies, digital evidence is police work’s new frontier. From a murder investigation that turned to an Amazon Echo speaker for evidence to a pending arson trial that hinges on the suspect’s pacemaker data, criminal cases are transforming almost overnight.
A&E True Crime looks at some of the more memorable cases of criminal clues in the Wi-Fi age.
Connie Dabate’s Fitbit Murder
On the morning of December 23, 2015, Connie Dabate was killed in her Connecticut home with a .357 Magnum pistol that belonged to her husband, Richard Dabate. Mr. Dabate was found bleeding and fastened to a chair with zip ties, where he claimed a home intruder had left him.
Mr. Dabate alleged that he and Connie had gone to work and a fitness class, respectively, shortly after 9:00 a.m. After realizing he’d left his laptop at home, Mr. Dabate says he returned, where he ran into a tall, stocky masked intruder. Mrs. Dabate came home shortly thereafter, Mr. Dabate claims, and the intruder turned his attention to her, killing her in their basement. Fastened to the chair, Mr. Dabate maneuvered to a phone and called police at 10:11 a.m.
When police couldn’t find any evidence of forced entry or the intruder Mr. Dabate described, they got a warrant to investigate the couple’s digital data: It tells a different story.
Connie had been posting on Facebook from her home I.P. address at 9:46 a.m., contradicting Mr. Dabate’s claim that she arrived in the middle of a tussle. Her Fitbit indicated that between 9:18 a.m. and 10:05 a.m. she took 1,217 steps around her home, far more than she should have, according to Mr. Dabate’s version of events.
Authorities would later discover more damning evidence: Mr. Dabate had been having an extramarital affair, and he tried to cash Connie Dabate’s $475,000 life-insurance policy in the days after his arrest.
Mr. Dabate has been charged with murder, tampering with evidence and making a false statement. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently free on $1 million bail.
The general public’s move to smart digital technology is “going to radically change criminal prosecution,” says Andrew Ferguson, professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clark School of Law and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing.
Part of that change involves how information about a victim is tracked down.
“When a law-enforcement agent is investigating a crime, they’re going to track down as much information as they can about the victim using digital clues,” Ferguson says. “But when you think about where we are in terms of smart things…the digital clues are going to allow more facts…to end up in court.”
Because so many crimes rarely have eyewitnesses, Ferguson says “so much of the rules of evidence, so much [of] the pattern of lawyering is about inferences…We’re going to have great information about what people actually did. A lot of these informational gaps are going to be filled in with these digital clues, and that’s going to change things.”
Of course, not all of these digital clues come from the victim; plenty more can come from the perpetrator’s smart tech.
The iPhone Health App Registers a Victim-Dragging as Stairs
On October 16, 2016, 19-year-old medical student Maria Ladenburger was raped and drowned in the Dreisam River of Freiburg, a city in southwest Germany. A hair found at the scene linked the crime to Hussein Khavari, a refugee of unknown age and origin, who initially denied wrongdoing.
After Khavari refused to provide the pin code to his iPhone, a cyber forensics team broke in and scoured his mobile data for clues. They were especially interested in his Health app, which measures the user’s daily physical activity.
The app registered two periods of strenuous activity for Khavari on the day of the crime, interpreting those moments as stair climbing. Using an iPhone, investigators recreated the crime scene and determined what the app had actually measured was Khavari dragging Ladenburger down to the river bank, then climbing back up.
At the Landgericht Freiburg (a German court), Khavari pleaded guilty to Ladenburger’s rape and murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the American legal system, Ferguson says warrant-based combing for digital clues has obvious benefits. Criminals will be more easily convicted, but innocent parties will also be more capable of proving their non-involvement in felonious activity—through Instagrams of the dinner they were having on the night in question, for example, or GPS measuring them far from the scene.
Furthermore, Ferguson imagines a “CSI effect” taking hold among juries, where members of the public serving on trials will begin to demand “smart data to corroborate the government’s case.”
But Ferguson argues other changes to the legal system might be more insidious: namely, that the bolstering of prosecutorial power will come at the expense of fourth amendment rights, which protect American citizens from unlawful searches and seizures.
Timothy Ivory Carpenter’s Serial Robberies
Between Christmas 2010 and March 2011, a group of men committed armed robberies on a series of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio. After the FBI homed in on Timothy Ivory Carpenter as the group’s potential ringleader, they obtained his cell-phone data records from his wireless company, without a warrant.
Using the GPS tracking on Carpenter’s phone, they were able to place him at the location of each of the robberies, which they then submitted into evidence at his trial.
He was convicted of several crimes in connection with the robberies, including multiple counts of aiding and abetting robbery that affected interstate commerce and abetting the use or carriage of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. He was sentenced to 116 years imprisonment.
Ivory has appealed that case on fourth amendment grounds, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the ruling is expected to have a major impact on the future on digital privacy.
According to Jones vs. Maryland, a Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s, the information that you give away to corporations that serve you (e.g. phone numbers you dial from your home phone) can be seized by police without a warrant, the justification being that such information has already been willingly given up by the suspect, and therefore the suspect can’t reasonably expect privacy for it. As such, if criminals wanted to talk shop in the era of landlines, they had to resort to pay phones and other “secure lines.”
But in the digital age, where more and more data is being passed to third parties, these rules need to be rethought, argues Ferguson.
“If the court doesn’t protect third-party data, if it doesn’t require a warrant, then the police—with no justification, just that they’re curious—can go get your Fitbit data, your Google searches…everything that you’ve done.”
And that means the relationship between the police and the public could fundamentally change.
“That is a huge change in the balance of power between citizens and the government,” says Ferguson.
But then, he adds, in the digital age, people’s relationship to privacy has already changed. Our data is public, as anyone who has ever seen the same pop-up ads follow them around the internet can attest.
“Police say that,” says Ferguson. “They say, ‘If Google can know, why shouldn’t we?'”