How Wearables Are Being Used to Solve Homicides, Missing Person and Illicit Drug Cases
The Popularity of Wearables Skyrockets
As digitally enhanced fitness trends grow worldwide, sales of wearable devices are exploding. The November 23rd, 2018 Black Friday sales event of the year, saw a huge spike in demand that raised the baseline of search requests for digital wearables globally.
Worldwide shipments of digital fitness trackers were forecasted to amount to 70M+ units by end of 2018 and are expected to increase to 105 million in 2022.
As popular digital wearables, such as the Fitbit and the Apple watch, help millions of people get into shape, monitor health and communicate, they quickly become an essential part of the day to day activities. Because of the rapid adoption and user engagement rates, the appearance of them at homicide and drug crime scenes is also rising. Numerous cases, some of which this post will highlight, attest to the value of the digital evidence contained in the discreet recording devices.
Digital investigators that recognize wearables as a new data source are already successfully solving homicides, assaults and missing person cases.
Abuse: Fitbit and Apple Watches Being Used to Monitor Cocaine Highs
While Fitbit and Apple watches were originally designed for people to monitor their heart rates during workouts, recreational cocaine users, unfortunately, are using this technology as an early-warning device to monitor spikes in their heart rate when binge-snorting cocaine. Cocaine users employ this technique as overdoses can produce an inadequate supply of blood to the heart and cause angina, stroke and heart attacks—even in seemingly healthy individuals.
Severe spikes in the standing heart rate can be caused by snorting cocaine. During this time, the brain releases large quantities of dopamine into the bloodstream which delivers a feeling of euphoria. Currently, the abuse of cocaine is taking the lives of 5,000 people each year due to the heart-related maladies brought on by the spikes in their heart rate.
Prevention: How Wearables Can Avert Overdoses
A Canadian start-up company is developing wearable technology that will actually prevent hardcore users from overdosing.
In British Columbia, deaths due to drug overdoses have been averaging between 28 and 30 deaths per week as a result of the current opioid crisis. Gordon Casey and biomedical engineer, Sampath Satti, decided to do something about the problem. Casey provided $50,000 in seed money and a team of engineers, headed by Satti, began developing new wearable technology.
The device is designed to detect a fall-off in respiration (one of the first signs of an overdose), and when it does, an alert is automatically sent to authorities or an anonymous network of volunteers, ready to rush to the person’s aid and administer the Naloxone drug. Naloxone is an antidote used to block the effects of opioids and has become the go-to option for preventing overdoses.
On the application front, a prototype app called “Be Safe” is currently being tested with a sample group of drug users. The app is designed to anonymously connect drug users with their peers who would then monitor the users via phone calls. Peers are only given the drug user’s location and if the user does not respond to a phone call, this would signal a possible drug overdose.
Detection: Using Wearables to Detect Narcotics Use
A group of scientists and medical advisors are currently developing a wearable device that can quickly and efficiently detect opioid use. The device uses electrodermal activity (EDA), skin temperature, and tri-axis acceleration data generated from a wrist-worn biosensor that detects whether a person has used opioids.
There is a clear potential benefit to doctors and hospital staff who need to identify incoming patients quickly, in order to administer overdose antidotes. For law enforcement, the same technology may provide a means to detect whether someone they encounter is under the influence of opioids.
The device delivers data in real time with 99% accuracy.
Missing Persons & Homicides
Potential Digital Evidence Generated by Wearables
Digital wearables, such as Fitbit, record seemingly mundane activity — the number of steps we take in a day, our heartbeats, sleep schedules, locations, and distance traveled. To the trained eyes of criminal investigators, the data from wearables can be used to document our daily lives, right down to the last footstep and heartbeat. This data can prove invaluable when investigating crimes.
Sudden spikes or fall-offs in heart rate (recorded in real time), and geolocation data extracted from wearable devices, can provide new paths for investigations. Whether it be searching for a missing person or piecing a trail of evidence together following a homicide.
Fitbit Used in Attempt to Find Missing Iowa Girl
Many will remember the recent case of Mollie Tibbetts, the Iowa woman who went missing on July 18th, 2018. During the desperate search for Tibbetts, who was a known fitness buff, FBI agents tried to locate her through her Fitbit. Police hoped that if Tibbetts was wearing her Fitbit at the time she went missing, location data from the device might lead them to wherever she was taken.
Though unsuccessful in the Tibbetts’ case, extraction of data from wearable devices is starting to provide crucial evidence in other cases that have led to arrests and prosecutions.
Woman’s Escape from Attacker Graphically Documented by Wrist-worn Device
The Garmin Vivosmart GPS device worn by Kelly Herron, a Seattle runner, who was viciously attacked in a park restroom, provides graphic evidence of how detailed and accurate the data of these devices can be.
Locked in a desperate fight for her life, Herron, who had just taken a self-defense class, was able to fight off her attacker and escape. Once outside, a passerby helped her lock the assailant in the park’s restroom until police arrived.
Herron’s Instagram page shows the violent path of her movements, which have become a war cry for victims to fight back.
Man Charged with Murder When Fitbit Places Him at the Crime Scene
Perhaps the most startling case is that of 90-year-old Anthony Aiello and the murder of his 67-year-old step daughter, Karen Navarra.
On September 8th, 2018, Aiello said that he had stopped by his step daughter’s home for a brief visit. He claimed the visit was completely friendly and stated that he brought pizza and biscotti with him and that Navarra had presented him with a gift of roses when he left. However, the Fitbit found on Navarra’s body told a different story.
Navarra’s body was discovered five days after the murder. As she had been wearing a Fitbit fitness tracker, investigators were able to extract the data that showed her heart rate spiking significantly at 3:20 p.m., on September 8th, at the time Aiello was there. As the Fitbit continued functioning, it recorded her heart beat up until the time it stopped.
The Fitbit evidence confirmed the time of Navarra’s death and was cross-referenced against video surveillance of the house. The video footage showed that Aiello’s car was still at Navarra’s residence when her recorded heartbeat stopped at 3:28 p.m, five minutes before Aiello left the house.
Police later found bloodstained clothes at Aiello’s home and subsequently he was arrested for her murder.
Woman’s Wearable Leads to Husband’s Arrest for Her Murder
A woman wearing a Fitbit was found shot dead in the basement of her Connecticut home on December 23rd, 2015. Her husband claimed an intruder had entered their home, assaulted him in a violent struggle, zip-tied him to a chair, and then murdered his wife in the basement. The Fitbit, however, told a different story.
It showed that the wife had walked more than 1000 steps around their home during the time of the “supposed” attack—further than the 125 feet the husband claimed his wife covered if she had just walked from the garage to the basement where he said she was killed.
Further digital evidence found on the Fitbit revealed that her last movements ceased at 10:05 a.m at which time he was still there. The suspect was charged with murder, making false statements and tampering with evidence based, in part, on the data from the Fitbit.
Wearables Helping Investigators Solve Crimes
As wearables increasingly provide key evidence, their data can also be a valuable addition to support digital evidence extracted from other sources such as smartphones, personal cloud accounts, video surveillance or even audio files.
While no single source may be enough to warrant an arrest, several sources together can build an extremely powerful case.
So the next time you strap on a wearable, remember that while it’s encouraging you to get healthier, it’s also providing real-time information that can help law enforcement build a safer world.