Pacemaker Data Used to Convict Arsonist

The Tell-Tale Pacemaker

Anyone who watches police procedurals on television is aware that law enforcement often uses data from cell phones and electronic toll tags to verify a suspect’s movements and actions. With the advent of smart devices there is much more data available, and law enforcement is using it to help identify the guilty parties and clear the innocent in a variety of crimes.

Data collected from connected devices, including Amazon Echo, fitness bands, smart refrigerators, thermostats, cars and others, are increasingly being used in court to prove or disprove the claims of law enforcement, defendants and witnesses.

One recent case involved a man who was charged with arson, at least in part because of data from his pacemaker. When a house fire destroyed Ross Compton’s Middletown, Ohio home, he told investigators that he had been sleeping when the fire broke out. He said that he was able to pack some items into suitcases, break out a window and escape the fire with some of his belongings. Investigators learned that Compton has an artificial heart implant with an external pump and electronic pacemaker. They got a search warrant to obtain data from his pacemaker, which they had reviewed by a cardiologist.

The cardiologist’s opinion was that, “[I]t is highly improbable Mr. Compton would have been able to collect, pack and remove the number of items from the house, exit his bedroom window and carry numerous large and heavy items to the front of his residence during the short period of time he has indicated due to his medical conditions.” Based on this data, in addition to other physical evidence, Compton was arrested and charged with arson and insurance fraud.

This is not the only example of law enforcement using data from an electronic device to obtain evidence. As one example, in 2015 a woman in Pennsylvania told police she had been sexually assaulted in her sleep. Data from her Fitbit, a wearable fitness-tracker, showed that she was awake and walking around during the alleged crime. That information was used to charge her with making a false report.

Arkansas police found an Amazon Echo at a murder scene in Bentonville that they hope will help them with their investigation into the death of a man strangled in a hot tub. Although Echo only records what’s said to it after it’s triggered by someone saying its wake word (e.g., “Alexa”), police are hoping the Echo may have inadvertently recorded something that might be of use to them.

Amazon, however, is not eager to hand over this kind of customer information to law enforcement. Amazon stores voice recordings from the Echo on its servers to improve its services, but they declined to provide the voice recordings that were sought via a search warrant. Amazon has since turned over the data after the customer gave them permission to do so.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) records more data about our daily lives, it is inevitable that the courts will have to weigh privacy concerns against the interests of law enforcement. Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the non-profit Future of Privacy Forum, said that while legal issues are still being debated, “you should always know if you have a device that is sending data elsewhere.”