Internet-connected devices enable individuals to interact and store personal information digitally, heralding in a new era of personal computing and creating social change by allowing individuals to be connected to many devices all at once.
Law enforcement agencies around the world are now seeking the assistance of tech companies that produce these devices to access the information contained within or gathered by them as a way to help solve crime. So far, these requests have faced some fierce resistance as they do not want to be compelled to hand over precious customer data, in the name of privacy.
FBI v Apple – iPhone 5c belonging to a perpetrator of crime
In February 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requested Apple to unlock an iPhone 5c owned by San Bernardino County in California, that had been issued to its employee, Syed Rizwan Farook. Mr Farook was one of the shooters involved in the December 2015 San Bernardino attack which killed 14 people and seriously injured 22.
This was seen as the first test in the courts of whether a consumer would have their privacy protected in such circumstances.
Apple rejected the FBI’s request as it did not want to be compelled to write custom software which would enable law enforcement access to any Apple device. CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, stated, “opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.” Ultimately, the case was not tested in the courts, as the FBI announced a day before the hearing was due to take place, that it had found a third party who was able to access the iPhone 5c without the assistance of Apple.
The FBI subsequently withdrew its request.
Amazon Echo – An internet-connected device with potential clues to solve a murder
More recently, in December 2016, police in Arkansas, United States, served a warrant on Amazon requesting that the company hand over data from an Echo device. An Echo device is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice which is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. Commands given to the device are recorded and stored remotely on Amazon’s service. The police hope that voice recordings collected by the device will help prosecute a suspected murderer.
Police have also interrogated smart meter data in an effort to reconstruct events at the scene.
Amazon has provided the following statement: “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course”.
Inevitably, we are likely to see more of these cases come before the courts as internet-connected devices continue to become more entrenched in peoples’ lives.