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Data Centers and Criminal Investigations: What to Know

By: Devin Partida on December 14, 2020

Even when people don’t consciously realize it, they leave data trails by using Google, posting to social media, shopping online and engaging in other everyday activities. What does that reality mean for relying on data centers during criminal investigations?

Digital Devices Provide Data to Clarify and Verify

Many people have smart speakers that sit in prominent places of a home, ready to respond if someone utters the right command. Judges and law enforcement officials have occasionally demanded access to stored recordings that could shed light on what happened during a violent incident.

In one case where domestic violence ended in a fatality, police requested data stored on Amazon’s servers to learn more about what happened when the victim was impaled on a bedpost. Smart speakers are not the only data-collecting devices that investigators may consider, however.

For example, a man submitted an insurance claim that said a house fire made him rush from his abode after waking from sleep. However, a look at his Fitbit data showed that he engaged in heavy labor before the blaze occurred. After concluding that he moved furniture and possessions out of his house to protect them before setting an intentional fire, insurers denied his claim.

Brand representatives for companies that store customers’ digital data often go to great lengths to discuss how they keep information safe. However, if a subpoena arrives, they have no choice but to submit stored data to the authorities.

Digital Data Is Not Always Accurate or Helpful

Technology can make life easier and help people save time. However, technological advancements also allow individuals to tamper with data. That means people should not automatically trust information after briefly studying it. For example, a screenshot may confirm that something happened, but people could use software to recreate images showing things that never occurred.

In one case, screenshots of communications on a mobile device seemed to show a woman violating a protection order that forbade her from talking to her former husband. However, a forensics analysis company identified five factors that brought the authenticity of the images into question. Professionals looked at the sending servers’ IP addresses and relays — among other aspects — when making their conclusions.

Moreover, dozens of police departments partnered with Amazon to see if the e-commerce brand’s Ring doorbell cameras could help identify suspects. A report featured data from 40 jurisdictions currently using the doorbell camera’s footage that way. The results showed that 13 did not lead to any more arrests based on what the feeds showed. Another 13 did lead to the detention of people after authorities reviewed Ring footage. The rest were unsure of how well Ring worked and could not evaluate its effectiveness.

A common complaint made by representatives from organizations using Ring to fight crime was that it took too long to look through irrelevant data. For example, a camera might catch a raccoon getting into a trashcan or document petty, non-crime-based disagreements between neighbors.

However, the world’s massive amounts of data can sometimes pay off from a historical perspective. For example, state and national databases show the prevalence of certain crimes or the number of closed versus active cases. Data centers help those tools function and increase the availability of vital records.

DNA Tests Give Law Enforcement Personnel New Leads

Statistics indicate that at least 26 million people have used home-based, self-administered DNA tests. The companies behind those products advertise them as a simple, accessible way to learn more about one’s ancestry.

However, law enforcement officers and detectives also use them to solve cold cases. That’s because many people freely copy their ancestral details into databases that help them learn more about their relatives. Some crime investigators use them to spotlight possible criminals.

In a 2019 study, one-third of respondents felt it was unacceptable for DNA companies to share customers’ details with law enforcement officers. Federal guidelines dictate how authorized crime-solvers in the United States can access and use that information.

In Germany, law enforcement agents ordered a mass DNA examination by requesting that approximately 900 men undergo saliva tests and questioning. They hoped to make progress in solving a 1996 murder case. Coverage of the effort did not confirm the role that data centers play. However, it did say that DNA tests on more than 300 males happened in 2010 and proved fruitless. Investigators likely compared current data with stored information to check which men got earlier tests.

Data Will Remain Crucial

Data centers do not always provide useful information to criminal investigators. However, the examples here show that they can. As the world’s residents become more dependent on data, so, too, will the people who fight crime.

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