iRat: Investigation and the Internet of Things
At one time, the personal computer was the average person’s only portal to the internet. Then came cell phones with internet capability. Now, with increasingly ubiquitous wi-fi connections and bluetooth, the number of devices with internet connectivity is mushrooming. It’s almost as if the internet is reaching out into the physical world, its tendrils tipped with tablets, watches, smart televisions, and more.
Recently, a number of unique devices is being released. The Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled speaker that is connected to the internet and listens for voice commands. When the “magic words” are spoken, it records the vocal prompt and sends it to Amazon’s networks. Google Glass is a product that is worn like eyeglasses and can be used for everything from taking pictures to e-mail to facial recognition—and it’s been more or less abandoned by the company after being dogged by a buggy release and massive privacy issues.
The proliferation of unique devices that can connect to the web has come to be known as “the Internet of Things” or “IoT” for short. And notwithstanding the roll-back of Google Glass, the trend is toward greater numbers of devices that collect more kinds of information. Naturally, law enforcement wants access to that information. This should be no surprise to my fellow Topiates, and I’m sure that many of you are already conscientious device users. I don’t expect to see any of you in court because you posted your grows on Facebook under your own name. :) Likewise, I would hope none of you are posting or texting your ex-partners in ways that could hurt you in a custody battle, because that comes up all the time. You get the general idea.
So let’s get specific. Just how is law enforcement eyeing the internet of things as fertile ground for investigation? How might it be used in the future? Well, for starters, devices have already been used to charge people with crimes. Last summer, a woman in Florida reported to police that she was sleeping when an unknown assailant broke into the house where she was staying and raped her. But when law enforcement found her Fitbit, a watch designed to help the user exercise by tracking activity, exercise, food, weight, and sleep, her story fell apart. The cops downloaded the information gathered by her Fitbit and found that she had been up all night walking around, and not asleep as she claimed.
More recently, the Amazon Echo gained notoriety for its involvement in a murder investigation. When police found a body in James Bates’ hot tub, they obtained a search warrant for his home and found a number of internet-capable devices, including his Echo. The Echo is a wireless speaker with a microphone that is “always on.” Really, it isn’t recording unless it hears one of the preprogrammed commands. A command initiates the devices recording function so that the user’s words can be transmitted to Amazon. However, it’s wise to remember that the Echo, like any other device with a microphone that connects to the internet, can be hacked.
Because of the way the Echo works, police have served Amazon with a warrant requesting any audio recordings it made during the time in question. Amazon has so far refused to comply with the warrant, turning over Bates’ account information but no recordings. The prosecutor in the case, Nathan Smith, expressed frustration over the refusal:
"They're focused on their marketing, on making money and their bottom line," Smith said. Smith said evidence on devices like the Amazon Echo and the iPhone could help prove suspects' guilt or innocence. Smith brought up the FBI's efforts to obtain information from a locked Apple device used in the 2015 San Bernardino attack.
"I'm not saying Amazon needs to go rat out people," Smith said. "You need a warrant and you need probable cause to get this information."
"Amazon needs to follow the law like every other company," Smith said.
"If we can search your house, your car and your bank account, I don't understand why we can't search this," Prosecutor Smith told 40/29. "The Echo is not protected from the warrant requirement."
For all of Smith’s strong words, the county in the Bates case is unsure whether they will push to compel Amazon to release the information because of the high level of resistance expected from Amazon. The tech companies have so far put up a good fight when it comes to their devices, or at least made a show of putting up a good fight. The government has fought hard as well for access to the information created by those devices. The FBI’s struggle with Apple earlier this year brought widespread attention to the issue.
The future of privacy protection in the law is uncertain when it comes to the Internet of Things. There is a longstanding legal principal called the “Third Party Doctrine,” which states that people cannot reasonably expect privacy in things that they convey to third parties. This includes garbage you put out to the curb to be hauled away and mail you entrust to UPS.
However, electronic information is somewhat different. There are at least minimal protections for things like e-mail, codified as the Stored Communications Act. Unlike garbage, issues involving personal information are likely to get privacy advocates riled up and willing to fight the good fight, or at least stir tech companies to protect the image of their products. At the same time, law enforcement agencies frequently get what they want despite the impact on personal privacy. Take for example the recent mushrooming of the federal government’s hacking powers.
Of course, there’s no need to become an expert on any of this. I bring it to you just to give you a sense of where things are at and where they’re heading. Be aware, stick to the basic principles of safety, and be a little fish. You’ll be fine. <3
Edited by Sidestreet, 05 January 2017 - 05:23 AM.