By: Joseph Giacalone
Investigators have a new tool for their electronic toolbox—voice-activated home devices. Whether it is Alexa, Google or Apple, these devices may hold the key to certain facts about your investigation. Why? Because it’s voice activated.
In a struggle, there is a chance that the device activated. We have only begun to see how valuable these devices could be for investigators. A New Hampshire judge just ordered an Echo device’s recordings in the case of a double homicide.Investigators should follow the outcome closely. This won’t be the last time these devices are at the forefront of an investigation.
The 3 Forensic Horsemen
As murder investigations move forward in the electronic frontier, police will rely more on what I refer to as the Three Forensic Horsemen:
1) Cell Phone Records
2) Internet Records
3) Video Surveillance
Home voice-activated devices such as Alexa may provide details in all three of these categories. They can take a variety of commands including the ability to make a phone call and search the Internet. The devices usually turn on to listen when a keyword is used such as: “Alexa . . . ,” “Okay, Google,” or “Hey, Siri.”
But I have found that I can trigger my devices with an, “Are you serious?” This is usually followed up with, “What can I help you with, Joseph?” from my device. These are the kind of nuggets that may be potential goldmines in a death investigation.
In the era of privacy rights, the companies that manufacture these devices have stated that they don’t record conversations per se. However, when they are activated, they do find what you are looking for. Everything we do on the Internet leaves an electronic trail of breadcrumbs for investigators to follow up on. A death investigation could definitely be one of those times. It doesn’t have to be a criminal investigation either. It may help medical examiners/coroners in determining the Manner of Death. Did the person try to call for help because they were in distress? A legal request for information can save countless hours of investigation.
A New Kind of Witness
Eyewitness testimony has been under attack in recent years, and some of that is warranted. No one wants to send an innocent person to prison. An electronic device’s memory doesn’t fade, it isn’t confused, nor is it caught up in the moment. They are devoid of emotion, stress or bias. They also don’t make mistakes. It only reports what it can, what it is told and what it found. In other words, its testimony in the courtroom would be both unequivocal and unimpeachable.
It should be an exciting time for those that seek justice for those who have been wronged. In addition to the advances in DNA techniques such as Familial searches and Phenotyping, comes a whole host of electronic devices capturing our every move and possibly our every word. Crimes that happen in the home rarely have an eyewitness, until now. These devices now call millions of places home, and the odds are you have already processed a crime scene without even giving them a second thought.
At the time of this writing, Alexa uses Microsoft’s Bing and Siri uses Google as their default search engines. Therefore, records are recorded. How long those records are kept is anyone’s guess. Investigators need to ask quickly to avoid any long-range issues. A subpoena at a minimum will be required to obtain the information from these devices. In my experience, I have found that notifying the prosecutor on suspicious death cases immediately, makes everything much easier, including obtaining subpoenas. Once you ask for advice from the prosecutor, you must follow it.
Remember, there is no such thing as a Crime Scene Exemption to the Fourth Amendment. There have been three Supreme Court decisions, Mincey v. Arizona, Flippo v. West Virginia, and Thompson Louisianato remind us. Anytime there is a criminal investigation which occurs in a home, investigators need to ask themselves, “Do I need a warrant?”
Since most people are victimized by someone they know, get a search warrant for the location. If you stick with the old police maxim, “When in doubt, fill it out,” you can’t go wrong. No one will ever fault you for trying to obtain a warrant when it wasn’t necessary.
As these electronic devices evolve with more functionality, they may provide a wide range of information. What’s the worst that could happen? An investigator makes a legal request that provides no information? We’ve all been there before. But we’ll never know what a device contains if we don’t think about them. Investigators should keep these devices in mind when processing the crime scene and uncover their potential evidentiary value in every case.