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  • April 04, 2024

    Connected Gadgets and Gizmos Can Help You Win Your Case

    Evolution in wearables and connectivity is changing the criminal justice landscape and maintaining awareness can be the difference between conviction and acquittal, write Sara Waldschmidt and Joy Hammond.

    Sara J.S. Waldschmidt and Joy Hammond

    By 2025, an estimated 41 billion IOT (Internet of Things) devices will be in existence, generating 79.4 zettabytes of data, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC).

    In January 2023, Sara Waldschmidt and I attended the National Internet of Things Conference sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Training Center at Fox Valley Technical College, to learn more about what we as prosecutors can access and what roadblocks we may face in the burgeoning world of tech investigations.


    “Internet of Things” is the catch-all term to describe the ever-increasing array of devices that connect to the internet.

    IOT touches all aspects of our lives, whether we like it or not. It includes choices we make – like Amazon Alexas in our kitchen and Ring doorbells on our front porches – to broader-reaching connections, like beacons placed in stores to capture the location of your cellphone as you enter, to targeted ads based on your location.

    Sara Waldschmidt, U.W. 1994, and Joy Hammond, Syracuse University College of Law 1997, are attorneys with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office in Wauwatosa.

    Most cars are now also “connected” and a significant amount of data can be obtained from them as well. Our “wearables”, including Apple watches, FitBits, and the like, can provide key details about our locations, as well as physical changes such as an increased heart rate, rate of movement at any given time, whether we walked up or down a flight of stairs, or even our level of cardiovascular well-being.

    All this Data: Use in Court Cases

    Given the vast array of information that can be collected from any time period we are wearing one of these devices, the likelihood that we will soon see this information being used to supplement or even prove cases is, is very high.

    Retired FBI agent Scott Augenbaum presented the first keynote and addressed the rising rate of cybercrime and ways citizens can prevent these intrusions (spoiler: two-party authentication!). His book, The Secret to Cybersecurity, includes a road map on how to keep yourself safe from cybercrime.

    The second keynote, Kevin Branzetti, gave an overview of the different technical avenues available to help solve crimes in the first 24 hours. He discussed the value of GPS, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), and smart devices.

    We split up for some of the breakout sessions based on our respective positions and the types of cases that we handle. Sara attended a case study session about the investigation of Dontarious “50” Scott, a sex offender who was caught through social media investigation. Scott was a YouTuber from north Texas who was taken down after one of his victim's parents saw explicit photos on the 11-year-olds' phone. An undercover officer used a victim's account, which led police to discover more than a dozen adolescent male victims who suffered sexual abuse both online and in person.

    “Wearables” came up in many of the sessions as a viable source of evidence. Wearable devices sync to smartphones via applications and can store enormous amounts of data related to the user. Most of the devices use ‘insecure’ wireless connectivity, such as Bluetooth or Near Field Communication (NFC), as access points. What can be obtained from the device itself varies wildly. At this time, very little is stored directly on an Apple watch, as they sync with other devices and the users iCloud. Other devices retain more information, however, the presence of the devices during the commission of a crime should spark further investigation. One of the takeaways was that officers should stay alert to these devices while still on scene, which now take the form of watches, pendants, and even rings.

    One of the best-case studies involved wearables as well as router queries and video surveillance. Officers were able to pinpoint the struggle and time of death of a home invasion by analyzing the heart rate and activity data from the victim’s FitBit. Once time of death was able to be determined, they were able to canvass for video and query the router to see what, if any devices connected.

    Connected Cars

    One of the more useful sources of information for many of the crimes we prosecute could well be the connected car. Almost all newer cars now have some form of connectivity, and the data is managed by a handful of vehicle service companies, like OnStar, Sirius, StarLink and Sync.

    Tesla is in a league of its own for car-related data, as the video, audio and GPS information is overwhelming to say the least.

    Many cars now also have cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities, opening up more avenues for tracking and data collection. Third-party devices have also found their way into the conversation, with telematics from insurance companies that track driving patterns through user installed plug-ins or smartphone apps.

    There are two major components to a connected car itself. First, the Vehicle Event Data Recorder (black box), which has been around for a while, contains information regarding speed, braking and possibly GPS. This information has traditionally been used in vehicular crimes, where the driver’s actions are at issue.

    The second component is a newer technology, the Infotainment System. This system would contain vehicle events (door open, gear shifts, etc.), GPS maps, or any other information entered by the user. Most useful, in my opinion, would be the stored identifiers for the phones that automatically connected through Bluetooth. A download of the system can provide the device name, phone number, call logs, MAC address, and connection times. The Kia Boys who ran from the Forte would leave a digital breadcrumb of their presence behind.

    Conclusion: Take These into Account

    The subject of IOT and its place in solving and proving criminal activity is an important one for all prosecutors. In a perfect world, we would have the time and resources to pursue all of these avenues in serious cases. While we may not have unlimited resources for these types of investigations, being aware of what is available to you for your case could be the difference between conviction and acquittal.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Government Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar divisions webpage or the Government Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about the benefits of division membership.

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    Government Lawyers Division Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by division members. To contribute to this blog, contact Katie Castle-Wisman and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Government Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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