If you’ve been in the market for a new home appliance, you already know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find products that don’t include “smart” elements. From refrigerators with wi-fi connections to doorbells with security cameras to all-purpose home assistants like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Nest, more and more homes are being decked out with these smart appliances. While these devices promise to make life easier in a myriad of ways, experts warn about the security and privacy risks that come with them. These risks can leave you exposed to hackers, but there’s also been an unforeseen group that has been making use of devices in recent years— the police.
Smart devices may collect more data about you than you know. Smart speakers, for instance, are always listening for a wake word — phrases used before issuing a command to the device, like “Hey, Siri” or “Alexa.” It’s a common misconception that these devices are recording everything, but there is some truth to the myth. One study showed that smart speakers can mistake other words for wake words up to once per hour. However, these devices usually only proceed to record a few seconds of sound before correcting the error and shutting down. Other devices, like Ring Doorbell, can provide video feed of the outside of your home— and some smart doorbells can even keep a facial recognition database that identifies people who frequent a home. Wearable smart devices like Fitbit or the Apple Watch track biological and GPS data from their wearers. All of this data is collected by the companies that manufacture the devices and a lot of it can be handed over to the police if needed.
In fact, there have been several murder cases where smart devices allowed investigators to build cases. The data from smart speakers isn’t always helpful, but it is becoming more and more common that police request the device data from companies, especially in high-profile criminal cases. Wearable devices have actively helped solve murder cases. One woman’s murder was solved when her Fitbit showed the exact time that her heart stopped, creating a timeline that didn’t add up with her stepfather’s alibi. Her stepfather was then charged with murder using this and other evidence. Another woman’s murder was solved when her husband’s fake story fell apart after police retrieved her Fitbit data— he was also charged with murder as a result. Video doorbells have been used to solve lesser crimes such as theft, but also recently aided in the manhunt for an escaped convict in Pennsylvania. Police are increasingly asking for smart device data of all kinds when they conduct investigations.
There are some serious pros and cons when it comes to buying and installing smart devices in your home or using wearable devices. While convenient, you never know what kind of data is being collected and who might be interested in obtaining it—for good and for bad. If you’re interested in reading more about how law enforcement agencies use technology to solve crime, be sure to check out my other blog posts on the subject.