Why Your Smart Home Is Law Enforcement’s Greatest Ally

With nearly one camera for every eleven residents, London has long been the most heavily surveilled city in the world.  Now, London may well have a contender for its title.  At its current pace, America is on track to place a recording device into nearly every home by the year 2020.

This increased surveillance is not the result of invasive legislation, CIA hacking, or even police actions.  Americans are increasingly surrounding themselves with interconnected devices capable of recording their every movement, and are paying a premium to do it.  According to a recent study, nearly 45 percent of Americans own smart home technology, with another 27 percent intending to invest in it within a year.  By 2020, smart homes are expected to become as a much a mainstream as the microwave or the dishwasher.

For the uninitiated, “smart home” technology allows common appliances to be wirelessly interconnected and remotely controlled.  The list of such devices is continuously expanding, but the most common ones are lights, heating, televisions, locks and security cameras. 

Beyond simplifying our everyday lives, smart home technology is creating and storing a treasure-trove of information on our actions and habits.  It should come as no surprise that law enforcement has begun to covet that information.  The balance between privacy and convenience will define the future of smart technology.

A Warrant Into Your Every Move

Although governments are often slow adapters of emerging technologies, law enforcement has already begun its focus on the data stored in our smart devices. 

In early 2016, the United States was divided over a court order requiring Apple to help the FBI hack one of its iPhones to assist with a criminal investigation.  During this debate, it became common knowledge that large companies, including Apple, regularly cooperate with law enforcement to supply call logs, provide meta data, and even assist with decryption efforts. Dozens of law enforcement agencies across the country came forward requesting similar assistance on cases, but before appellate courts could weigh in, the issue was resolved when the FBI hacked the iPhone without Apple’s cooperation.

A year later, Amazon was subpoenaed to provide information stored on its Echo device to assist in a murder investigation. Amazon initially opposed the subpoena on First Amendment and privacy grounds, but quickly abandoned this position when the defendant consented to the information’s disclosure. 

Then, in March 2017, it was discovered that the CIA and British intelligence were developing programs aimed at utilizing smart home technology as a source of covert data and espionage.  Such tactics are gaining support in the legislature, with the United Kingdom having recently passed legislation allowing its government unprecedented access to its citizens’ smart devices.

Although these incidents may seem shocking and newsworthy today, they will soon become commonplace and unremarkable.  Just as it has become a standard investigative tool to subpoena a suspect’s phone records and internet search history; so too will it become the first step for an investigator to subpoena the data inherently stored in a suspect’s smart appliances. 

Hypothetical Case Study

To explain the investigative power of smart home devices, I will use an example based on the prosecution of a crime so common that it has been satirized by the Simpsons for nearly three decades: the convenience store robbery.

Traditionally, the prosecution of convenience store robberies has been rife with difficulties. Such robberies are often committed at night, when there are no witnesses.  The perpetrators regularly cover their face or distort their voices.  And even if recognized, eye-witness identification has long been considered imperfect and has increasingly become insufficient to garner a conviction.  Convenience store security systems, if they exist, are often of low quality, producing grainy and difficult to see images, with no accompanying audio. 

With the help of smart home technology, the same crime would be supported by myriad evidence. For example, most smart home appliances can now be affected by the owner’s location, allowing lights to turn off when a person leaves their home and turn back on as they arrive.  Using this information, law enforcement can establish a timeline for the suspect’s whereabouts. 

Home surveillance cameras are often newer and of a higher quality than their convenience store counterparts.  With their enhanced connectivity with the rest of the home, such cameras can provide clear images of when an individual left, when he returned, what he was wearing, and what he had with him. Finally, with our increasing reliance on GPS navigation systems, as well as wearable technology, police can track an individual’s every movement.

With the advent of smart technology, law enforcement investigations evolve from grainy videos and shaky witness identifications to a complete step-by-step map of the suspect’s movements, both inside and outside their homes. 

Whether you are on the privacy or law enforcement side of this issue, technology has historically found its way into the hands of law enforcement.  Over the next few years, companies will have to walk an increasingly difficult road; attempting to protect their customers from ever increasing vulnerabilities to their privacy while cooperating with authorities and complying with their legal obligations.  Those who find a path through these issues may well come out as the only trusted companies in the smart home space.