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Cops to increasingly use digital footprints from IoT devices for investigations

Jan 02, 20174 mins
Data and Information SecurityInternet of ThingsSecurity

Alexa, don’t be a narc. Cops plan to use data from IoT devices to prove or disprove alibis, as well as for crime scene investigations.

internet of things smart house
Credit: thinkstock

If Mark Stokes, Scotland Yard’s head of digital, cyber and communications forensics unit, is correct, then IoT devices will play an increasingly important role in crime scene investigations.

“The crime scene of tomorrow is going to be the Internet of Things,” Stokes told the Times.

The police are being trained to look for “digital footprints”—IoT gadgets that “track or record activities” that might prove or disprove alibis and witness statements, as well as record what occurred during a murder victim’s final moments.

Cops will rely on evidence from smart devices that spy on you—such as internet-connected refrigerators, light bulbs, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers and voice-controlled robotic assistants.

Stokes explained:

“Wireless cameras within a device such as the fridge may record the movement of suspects and owners. Doorbells that connect directly to apps on a user’s phone can show who has rung the door and the owner or others may then remotely, if they choose to, give controlled access to the premises while away from the property. All these leave a log and a trace of activity.”

Think about that while perusing products on display at CES 2017, as this has the potential to go much further than cops tapping into smart fridges and doorbells. For example, a robotic vacuum cleaner such as Unibot, which will be shown off at CES 2017, comes equipped with a security camera so it can send owners pictures and videos in real time in case it detects “unusual signs in its peripheral vision.”

All manner of smart items meant to provide convenience could also potentially be used to narc on you—used by the police to gather evidence. Some folks won’t be bothered by that, since they willingly carry a smartphone, which can double as a surveillance device. (Phones are frequently targeted by law enforcement during investigations.)

Millions of people already wear wearables, but in the future, even a person’s clothes will be able to provide location data. There are already some smart clothes, such as “vibrating” jeans, which connect to a smartphone and vibrate on one side or the other in order to give GPS map directions without the user needing to whip out her phone.

A self-driving car, for example, would have location logs, but hopefully couldn’t be used against riders by locking the doors until police arrived to collect the person inside, for example.

While most people don’t yet have a smart refrigerator, many do have smart TVs, and most smart TVs include a camera and microphone. Voice control assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, are quickly gaining popularity. This year at CES, there will be a plethora of products built to integrate with popular voice control assistants and even new voice control bots.

Not that all smart voice-controlled assistants correctly understand what is asked of them—as one family found out after a little boy asked their new Amazon Echo Dot to play “tickle tickle.” Alexa thought the child wanted porn and started to comply before the parents freaked out and shut her down.

The smart meter, Amazon Echo and a murder investigation

The idea that police would use data provided by IoT devices is nothing new. Police in Arkansas are pressuring Amazon to hand over data from an Echo device. The cops think some of the recorded audio data sent to the personal assistant “Alexa” may be helpful for their murder investigation. Amazon did not comply—other than sending the suspect’s purchase history.

Bentonville police detectives have already used IoT data—data from a connected water meter. The cops think the massive spike in water usage on the night of a murder may indicate the hot tub and patio had been hosed down to wash away blood evidence.

When cops start looking for “digital footprints” in IoT gadgets, it supposedly won’t be like when the cops seize a hard drive, laptop or computer for an indefinite period during an investigation. Stokes said the smart devices won’t need to be seized and hauled off. Instead, investigators will use a “digital forensics kit,” which is yet to be developed, to download data and analyze microchips at the scene.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.