Smart devices give up suspects’ secrets in criminal cases
The firefighter found Richard Dabate on the floor of his kitchen, where he had made a desperate 911 call minutes earlier, court records show. Bleeding and lashed to a chair with zip ties, the man moaned a chilling warning: “They’re still in the house.”
Smoke hung in the air, and a trail of blood led to a darkened basement, as Connecticut State Police swarmed the large home in the Hartford suburbs two days before Christmas in 2015.
Richard Dabate, 41, told authorities a masked intruder with a “Vin Diesel” voice killed his wife, Connie, in front of him and tortured him. Police combed the home and town of Ellington but found no suspect.
With no other witnesses, detectives turned to the vast array of data and sensors that increasingly surround us. An important bit of evidence came from an unlikely source: the Fitbit tracking Connie Dabate’s movements.
Others from the home’s smart alarm systems, Facebook, cellphones, email and a key fob allowed police to re-create a nearly minute-by-minute account of the morning that they said revealed the husband’s story was an elaborately staged fiction.
Undone by his data, Richard Dabate was charged with his wife’s murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
The case, which is in pretrial motions, is perhaps the best example of how internet-connected, data-collecting smart devices such as fitness trackers, digital home assistants, thermostats, TVs and even pill bottles are beginning to transform criminal justice.
The ubiquitous devices can serve as a legion of witnesses, capturing our every move, biometrics and what we have ingested. They sometimes listen in or watch us in the privacy of our homes. And police are increasingly looking to the devices for clues.
The prospect has alarmed privacy advocates, who say too many consumers are unaware of the revealing information these devices are harvesting.
Andrew Ferguson, a University of the District of Columbia law professor, says we are entering an era of “sensorveillance” when we can expect one device or another to be monitoring us much of the time. The title of a law paper on the topic put the prospect this way: “Technology is Killing Our Opportunity to Lie.”
The business research company Gartner estimates 8.4 billion devices were connected to the internet in 2017, a 31 percent increase over the previous year. By 2020, the company estimates there will be roughly three smart devices for every person on the planet.
“Americans are just waking up to the fact that their smart devices are going to snitch on them,” Ferguson said. “And that they are going to reveal intimate details about their lives they did not intend law enforcement to have.”
The chaotic scene inside the Dabate home had all the hallmarks of a home invasion, but a few details would prompt investigators to take a closer look.
Dogs brought in to track the suspect could find no scent trails leaving the property and circled back to Richard Dabate, according to arrest records. He also aroused suspicion when detectives asked whether their probe would reveal any problems between him and his wife.
He took a deep breath and offered: “Yes and no.”
Dabate told a bizarre story. He said that he had gotten a high school friend pregnant and that it was his wife’s idea. He said the three planned to co-parent the child because his wife wanted another baby but could not have one for health reasons.
Later, Dabate changed his story, saying he had a romantic relationship with the friend and the pregnancy was unplanned.
The admission pointed toward a possible motive for the killing, but it would be the data detectives uncovered that would give them evidence to conclude his story was a lie.
Detectives had noticed Connie Dabate was wearing a Fitbit when they found her body.
They requested the device’s data, which showed she had walked 1,217 feet after returning home from an exercise class, far more than the 125 feet it would take her to go from the car in the garage to the basement as Richard Dabate’s detailed account of events on the day of the slaying.
The Fitbit also registered Connie Dabate moving roughly an hour after Richard Dabate said she was killed before 9:10 a.m. Facebook records also cast doubt on the husband’s timeline, showing his wife had posted as late as 9:46 a.m.
Detectives would also come to doubt that Richard Dabate left home that morning, after examining data from his home alarm system and his email account.
Records indicate he used a key fob to activate his home alarm from his basement at 8:50 a.m. and then disabled it at 8:59 a.m. from the same location.
Dabate also told investigators he emailed his boss from the road after getting the alert about the alarm. But records from his Microsoft Outlook account showed he sent the email from the IP address associated with his home.
Combined, the data punched major holes in Dabate’s story. Police obtained an arrest warrant for him in April.
Dabate and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Dabate case is just one of a handful in which law enforcement officials have resorted to smart-device sleuthing.
In September 2016, an Ohio man told authorities he awoke to find his home ablaze, but police quickly suspected he set the fire himself. They filed a search warrant to get data from his pacemaker.
Authorities said his heart rate and cardiac rhythms indicated he was awake at the time he claimed he was sleeping. He was charged with arson and insurance fraud.
Prosecutors in a 2015 Arkansas murder case sought recordings from the suspect’s Amazon Echo when a 47-year-old man was found floating in the suspect’s hot tub after a night of partying. Authorities thought the voice-activated assistant may have recorded valuable evidence of the crime.
Amazon.com challenged the search warrant in court, saying that the request was overly broad and that government seizure of such data would chill customers’ First Amendment rights to free speech. But the challenge was eventually dropped because the suspect agreed to allow Amazon to turn over the information.
Ferguson, the law professor, said a case before the Supreme Court could be key in determining how exposed smart-device data is to searches by law enforcement.
In 2011, investigators in Detroit obtained months of cellphone location data on a suspect in a robbery investigation without a search warrant. Timothy Carpenter was later convicted, in part on that information.
Carpenter is arguing in his appeal that such cellphone location data is so powerful it should be covered by the protections of the Fourth Amendment and that police should be required to get a search warrant to obtain it.
Ferguson said a ruling against Carpenter might clear the way for authorities to seek smartdevice data stored on those servers without a warrant.
“In a world of truly ubiquitous connectivity where we are recording our heartbeat, our steps, our location if all of that data is now available to law enforcement without a warrant, that is a big change,” he said. “And that’s a big invasion of what most of us think our privacy should include.”
Richard Dabate, pictured April 17 with attorneys Hubie Santos, left, and Trent LaLima, right, in Rockville Superior Court in Vernon, Conn., is charged in the death of 39-year-old Connie Dabate at their home in 2015.