The Gabby Petito case is all over the news as the manhunt for her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, continues. It’s a sad story for sure and my heart goes out to her family and friends. And several people have noted the lack of similar media coverage for the thousands of other missing people in the US and those concerns and complaints are certainly valid. From my perspective, I think like an eDiscovery professional (maybe because I am one!), so I’m always interested in potential sources of electronic evidence that can be used to support criminal investigations like this. There are more than ever!
It should be noted that this is a general post, not one specific to the Gabby Petito case, and that there should be no assumption that any of these specific sources apply to that case.
Sources of Electronic Evidence Used in Criminal Investigations
Hard Drives and Other Local Media: One of the oldest sources of electronic evidence used in criminal investigations is computer hard drives and other local media (e.g., flash drives, floppy disks for legacy cases, etc.). Everything from electronic transaction trails to photo and video evidence to internet search histories can reveal potential evidence in a criminal investigation. Often investigations of these sources include forensic investigation to recover evidence that has been deleted. I even remember an old Forensic Files episode where they taped a 5 1/4″ floppy disk back together and were able to read it to recover evidence that way! That’s literally piecing the case together! 😉
Mobile Devices: Mobile devices may be the most common source of electronic evidence used today in criminal investigations. Text correspondence can reveal plans to commit crimes, state of mind and more. Pictures and videos can document evidence of the crimes themselves. Geolocation data can identify where the cell phone was located at any point in time and can help confirm or refute the alibi of a suspect in the case. Time after time, the device most of us can’t seem to live without – the cell phone – results in valuable evidence in criminal cases.
Wearables: We’ve seen Fitbits, Apple Watches and other wearables identify or exonerate suspects, including a murder case I covered a couple of years ago where the victim’s Fitbit recorded a rapid rise in her heart rate before a sudden drop-off to nothing, which coincided with her stepfather’s visit to her house caught by surveillance camera.
Internet of Things (IoT) Devices: We’ve seen several cases (including this one) where Amazon Echo devices (aka, Alexa) have been requested from Amazon to look for evidence of discussions being held by suspects or in a house where a crime was committed and there are so many types of IoT devices that can come into play in criminal investigations, including smart thermostats, ring doorbells, car infotainment systems and even pacemakers. I’ve seen a case where a person was arrested for arson of his own house, in part because his pacemaker showed considerable activity (when he was throwing certain valuables out a window) at a time before the fire when he said he was sleeping. IoT devices are becoming one of the more common sources of electronic evidence in criminal investigations.
Cloud-Based Sources: We can’t forget the cloud, can we? Certainly, a social media post is reported to have played a part in the Gabby Petito case. With so many cloud-based solutions in use today, more and more of the evidence we used to find on hard drives in terms of electronic transaction trails and photo and video evidence (among other things) is being sourced from the cloud.
Surveillance Cameras: The “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s classic story 1984 is here! But when it comes to criminal investigations, we are often the “Big Brother” of surveillance, as surveillance cameras are everywhere, in homes and businesses across the country (and much of the world). And these cameras (many of which are IoT devices themselves) are capturing criminal activity and potential suspects on a regular basis.
Geofence Warrants: As I wrote in January, the use of geofence warrants by law enforcement is spreading and often being used to identify potential suspects simply based on their physical location at a particular point of time (while some have criticized the practice.
When you’re following news stories about criminal cases, keep in mind that law enforcement has more sources of electronic evidence than ever to support their criminal cases. Honestly, I don’t know why anybody would attempt to commit a crime these days!
So, what do you think? Did I miss any sources of electronic evidence used in criminal investigations? I’ll bet I did! Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by my employer, my partners or my clients. eDiscovery Today is made available solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Today should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.