Smart de­vices give up sus­pects’ se­crets in crim­i­nal cases

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Jou­ve­nal

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.

Ama­ 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.

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