'Going Dark?': Cops Grab Vehicle Data To Identify A Murder Suspect

from the [car-whispering-furtively-into-a-payphone]-i-have-something dept

All the cops in the federal shops say "going dark" is a thing. Local cops have much less to say about the issue, even though they've got as much at stake. The FBI can't be trusted to count its own inventory of "locked" devices, so how much of a problem encryption poses is still highly theoretical. Which is the way the FBI and DOJ want it.

We live in a golden age of surveillance. Much of it is self-enabled. Phones track users wherever they go, an unfortunate byproduct of remaining "connected." FOMO has turned dozens of phone apps into unstoppable data generators. In-home devices record conversations, track viewing habits, and record internet usage habits. Wearables provide even more location data, as well as tons of useful biometric info.

Any cop complaining about the "restraints" of device encryption just isn't using their imagination. Cloud services provide cops with backups of conversations they can't access from locked devices. Billions of data points harvested by apps, data brokers, and government contractors give cops tons of info that's escaped the protective measures device owners have deployed to protect their devices.

A recent report by NBC News shows yet another way cops are leveraging "always-on" information gathering to round up criminal suspects, encryption be damned. Investigators hoping to solve the alleged murder of a Michigan resident turned to third parties to gather evidence, using collected data to build a case. The murder victim was dragged behind his vehicle by his neck, resulting in his violent death. His body was covered in abrasions and his skull had been "partially flattened."

At first, investigators were stumped. But then they went searching for information that has never been historically available to law enforcement. Say what you will about "going dark," but for dozens of years, cops have never been able to trace a vehicle -- much less the actions of its occupant -- without actually sending units/officers out to trail someone. And, in a case like this, there was no reason to shadow the person who killed Ronald French, since he wasn't suspected of murder until after the crime happened. Fortunately for law enforcement, "someone" was already trailing the suspect they originally never suspected of anything.

For more than two years, Kalamazoo County sheriff's detectives investigated French's murder without making any arrests. Then, according to police records obtained by NBC News, one of the detectives learned of an emerging field — digital vehicle forensics — which focuses on extracting the treasure trove of data stored in an automobile's onboard computers.

They returned to French's 2016 black Chevy Silverado pickup truck, which had been stolen around the time he vanished, and discovered time-stamped recordings of someone else's voice using the hands-free system to play Eminem on the radio at the time of French's murder.

The newfangled policework combined with old school investigative techniques (interviews, check out alibis, etc.) to produce a suspect. Thanks to information cops have never had access to historically produced a suspect currently facing murder charges. The recordings of his voice were confirmed by relatives, including his wife.

Some of this isn't completely new. Law enforcement officers and insurance investigators have used "black boxes" in cars for years to suss out the details of car accidents. More recently, law enforcement investigators have turned systems like OnStar into literally rolling wiretaps to intercept conversations.

But there's far more information available now. Vehicles allow drivers to sync their cellphones to on-board systems, providing yet another avenue of access to investigators who find themselves locked out of seized devices. There really isn't much in the way of data protection when it comes to vehicles and information-gathering. At some point, these new Constitutional boundaries may be tested in court, but that day hasn't come yet.

Despite arguments to the contrary when facing suppression motions or civil rights lawsuits, law enforcement agencies are keenly aware of which side of the Fourth Amendment bread their bread is buttered. At this point, protections for in-car data collection remain largely unexplored. And it's in that vacuum of precedent that law enforcement will operate. The NBC report notes that a single agency admits it extracts vehicle data like this "three to four times a week." In most cases, this is for routine accident investigation. But there's far more on the line than a citation for a moving violation in other cases -- and those are the cases we need to keep an eye on.

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Filed Under: car data, evidence, going dark, law enforcement, surveillance

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  1. identicon
    pfffft, 7 Jan 2021 @ 10:26am

    simple solution

    if you don't want to do the time

    don't do the crime

    nuff said

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