When Amazon Echo, Fitbit & Other Tech Are Witnesses to Murder

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Police using technology to gather evidence and solve crimes is nothing new. This far into the computer age, emails, EZPass records, and text messages are commonplace in the justice system. But as technology changes, the way it's used in these cases changes, too. 

Technology is now more personal and more pervasive than ever before. Whether it comes in the form of devices that can monitor our activity and vital signs, or always-on devices that let us access information from the internet by voice, new technology is leading investigators to build cases in new ways.

Here are some particularly interesting examples of recent crimes in which cutting-edge technology has been used to gather evidence. Check back in the future for other notable cases; as technology evolves there are bound to be unexpected new ways that it's involved in crimes.

The Amazon Echo Murder Case

Perhaps the most famous case of cutting-edge consumer technology being used to gather evidence in a criminal prosecution is the so-called "Amazon Echo Murder." In this case, James Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas, was accused of killing his friend, Victor Collins, in Nov. 2015. After a night of drinking at Bates' house, Bates says he left Collins in the house and went to bed. In the morning, Collins was found drowned, face down in Bates' hot tub. Authorities charged Bates with Collins's murder in Feb. 2016.

While Bates claims that Collins's death was an accident, authorities say they found signs of a struggle near the hot tub, including blood and broken bottles.

Technology enters the story because a witness who was at Bates's house earlier that night recalled that Bates's Amazon Echo was streaming music. With that piece of information, Benton County, AR, prosecutors sought recordings, transcripts, and other information that may have been captured by Bates’ Echo from Amazon.

What authorities expect to find is unclear. It's the stuff of far-fetched crime novels to think that the Echo contains audio of a crime being committed. While the Echo—and all smart speakers, like Google Home and the Apple HomePod—are always "listening" to what goes on in your house, they’re only listening for certain trigger words that cause them to interact with you. In the Echo's case, those words include "Alexa" and "Amazon." The idea that someone could have called out for Alexa, thus triggering some kind of recording, while a crime was being committed seems very unlikely. This is especially true because after waking the Echo, its connection to Amazon's servers—and thus any potential recording—only stays active for a maximum of around 16 seconds unless another command is given.

Concerned with the privacy implications—and, one would assume, the potential negative sales impact—Amazon initially opposed authorities' request for the data. But after Bates gave Amazon the go ahead, the company turned over data in April 2016. No word on what evidence, if any, investigators were able to glean.

In a further technological twist, at least one report notes that Bates's water heater is also "smart"—that is, connected to the Internet—and that it shows an unusual amount of water use on the morning of the alleged crime.

No word on whether more data is being derived from the water heater.

As of this writing, Bates’ trial date has not been set.

Fitbit Tracks Holes in an Alibi

A Fitbit is proving essential to a murder case in Connecticut. Though Richard Dabate pled not guilty in late April 2017 to murdering his wife, data collected from her Fitbit gave police some of the evidence they needed to charge him.

Dabate's wife, Connie, was killed in Dec. 2015. Dabate told police that she was killed by an intruder after returning home from the gym. Dabate said that he had come home just after 9 a.m. to get his forgotten laptop and was surprised by an intruder who attacked him and tied him to a chair.

When his wife returned home from the gym, Dabate said that the intruder shot her to death with Dabate’s shotgun and then tortured him until Dabate was able to attack him and get free. He called 911 at 10:10 a.m. that morning.

In investigating the death, police captured data from Connie Dabate’s Fitbit showing that she walked 1,217 feet between 9:18 and 10:10 a.m. Police came to doubt Dabate’s story—that the attack was occurring at that time and that his wife had only walked from her car into the house—because they said she would have traveled no more than 125 feet in that time if the story were true.

Police alleged that Dabate was prompted to commit the crime after getting a girlfriend pregnant. As of this writing, his trial is ongoing.

Other Notable Cases ​

While not murder cases, gadgets have played a role in other legal proceedings, including:

The Future: More Technology in Crime

These cases receive attention due to their novelty, but as cutting-edge consumer technology evolves and is more widely adopted, expect it to become more common in criminal investigations. As technology evolves, it becomes more intelligent and generates ever-more-detailed and useful data; useful both for average people and for the police. With smart homes capturing details about our activities in the home and wearables, smartphones, and other gadgets providing evidence of what we do outside the home, technology may make it harder and harder to get away with a crime.