When Amazon Echo, Fitbit & Other Tech Are Witnesses to Murder

Here are some particularly interesting examples of crimes in which cutting-edge technology has been used to gather evidence. Check back in the future for other notable cases. As technology evolves, there are bound to be unexpected new ways that tech is part of solving crimes.

Do Police Use Smart Devices in Investigations?

Police using technology to gather evidence and solve crimes is nothing new. This far into the computer age, emails, EZPass records, and text messages are common parts of the justice system. But as technology changes, the way it's used in these cases changes, too. 

Technology is more personal and more pervasive than ever before. Whether it comes in the form of devices that can monitor our activity and vital signs or always-on devices that access information from the Internet by voice, new technology is leading investigators to build cases in new ways.

The Amazon Echo Murder Case

Perhaps the most famous case of cutting-edge consumer technology being in a criminal prosecution is the so-called "Amazon Echo Murder." In this case, James Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas, was accused of killing his friend, Victor Collins, in Nov. 2015. After a night of drinking at Bates' house, Bates says he left Collins in the house and went to bed. In the morning, Collins was found drowned, face down in Bates' hot tub. Authorities charged Bates with Collins's murder in Feb. 2016.

While Bates claims that Collins's death was an accident, authorities say they found signs of a struggle near the hot tub, including blood and broken bottles.

Technology enters the story because a witness who was at Bates's house earlier that night recalled that Bates' Amazon Echo was streaming music. With that piece of information, Benton County, AR, prosecutors sought recordings, transcripts, and other information that may have been captured by Bates’ Echo from Amazon.

What Role Did Alexa Play?

What authorities expect to find is unclear. It's the stuff of far-fetched crime novels to think that the Echo contains audio of a crime being committed. While the Echo — and all smart speakers, like Google Home and the Apple HomePod — are always "listening" to what goes on in your house, they’re only listening for certain trigger words that cause them to interact with you. In the Echo's case, those words include "Alexa" and "Amazon." The idea that someone could have called out for Alexa, thus triggering some kind of recording, while a crime was being committed seems very unlikely. This is especially true because after waking the Echo, its connection to Amazon's servers — and thus any potential recording — only stays active for a handful of seconds unless another command is given.

Amazon's Response to Investigators

Concerned with the privacy implications — and, we assume, potential negative sales impact — Amazon initially opposed authorities' request for the data. But after Bates gave Amazon the go ahead, the company turned over data in April 2016.

In a further technological twist, at least one report notes that Bates's water heater is also "smart" — that is, connected to the Internet — and that it shows an unusual amount of water use on the morning of the alleged crime.

In Dec. 2017, a judge dismissed the murder charge against Bates. The prosecutor in the case said he was no longer convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Bates committed the crime.

In a somewhat similar case, investigators in New Hampshire sought access to the Alexa records of a woman who was stabbed to death in her kitchen. Unlike in the Bates case, there's no word yet as to whether there's reason to believe that Alexa was used at the time of the murder or that it recorded any specific, relevant data.

Fitbit Tracks Holes in an Alibi

A Fitbit is proving essential to a murder case in Connecticut. Though Richard Dabate pled not guilty in late April 2017 to murdering his wife, data collected from her Fitbit gave police some of the evidence they needed to charge him.

Dabate's wife, Connie, was killed in Dec. 2015. Dabate told police that she was killed by an intruder after returning home from the gym. Dabate said that he had come home just after 9 a.m. to get his forgotten laptop and was surprised by an intruder who attacked him and tied him to a chair. When his wife returned home from the gym, Dabate said that the intruder shot her to death with Dabate’s shotgun and then tortured him until Dabate was able to attack him and get free. He called 911 at 10:10 a.m. that morning.

In investigating the death, police captured data from Connie Dabate’s Fitbit showing that she walked 1,217 feet between 9:18 and 10:10 a.m. Police came to doubt Dabate’s story that the attack was occurring at that time and that his wife had only walked from her car into the house because they said she would have traveled no more than 125 feet in that time if the story were true.

Police alleged that Dabate was prompted to commit the crime after getting a girlfriend pregnant. As of this writing, his trial is set for March 2020.

Other Cases of Smart Devices in Legal Proceedings ​

While not murder cases, gadgets have played a role in other legal proceedings, including:

While not a case of technology helping solve crimes, Ring doorbells have been in recent news due to the company letting police departments access data in ways that consumers may not have been aware of. This sort of concern around government surveillance combined with private companies is likely to grow in coming years.

The Future: More Technology in Crime

These cases receive attention due to their novelty, but as cutting-edge consumer technology evolves and is more widely adopted, expect it to become more common in criminal investigations. As technology evolves, it becomes more intelligent and generates ever-more-detailed and useful data. That data is useful both for average people and for the police. With smart homes capturing details about our activities in the home and wearables, smartphones, and other gadgets providing evidence of what we do outside the home, technology may make it harder and harder to get away with a crime.

Was this page helpful?