From genetic genealogy to smart devices, tech is changing law enforcement

See how technology is the new crime solving genius in town

As we’re all aware, rapid advancements in technology, from social networks to streaming services, have had a profound effect on our culture and economy in recent years. And in the same way that the music industry and news media now look completely different than they did 20 years ago, law enforcement could soon undergo a total overhaul thanks to changes in technology and its effect on our behaviors.

Fitbitter Criminals

Consider the implications of wearable smart devices on criminal justice. Just last week, a British man, Mark Fellows, was sentenced to life in prison following a murder case in which his Garmin Forerunner watch was used as a key piece of evidence. After sifting through the data on his smart watch, investigators working the case discovered that Fellows went on a “reconnaissance run” to scout the area where alleged crime boss Paul Massey was murdered three months later. A photograph of Fellows running in a race, Garmin device latched to his left wrist, provided confirmation he owned the watch around the time of the crime, and he was sent away for life.

Fellows is not the only person to have been charged with a crime thanks to wearable tech. The New York Times recently covered the case of a 90-year-old man who was arrested for the murder of his step-daughter thanks in part to her Fitbit. Comparing surveillance footage against the data on the device showing her heart rate spiking, then trailing off, police were able to place her step-father at the scene of the crime following the murder.

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You don’t have to look hard to find these types of cases. Just this week, a trial was announced for a Connecticut man charged with murdering his wife after data on her Fitbit contradicted his claims that she was killed by a home intruder.

Data Don’t Lie

There are also a number of sexual assault cases that have involved fitness trackers. In 2017, runner Kelly Herron was assaulted while using a public restroom in Seattle. As she fought off and eventually detained her attacker, her GPS device recorded the pattern of her movements, which Herron later put on t-shirts and coffee mugs – along with the phrase “Not today, mother [email protected]#!er” – to encourage women’s self-defense.


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My biggest running nightmare became reality- 4 miles into my long run Sunday afternoon, I stopped to use the restroom and was assaulted by a man hiding in a stall (that is my GPS in red lines). I fought for my life screaming(“Not today, M**F**er!”), clawing his face, punching back, and desperately trying to escape his grip- never giving up. I was able to lock him in the bathroom until police arrived. Thankfully I just took a self-defense class offered at my work and used all of it. My face is stitched, my body is bruised, but my spirit is intact. #NTMF #fightingchanceseattle #ballard #runnersafety #marathontraining #womensselfdefense #myballard #fightlikeagirl #fightback #nottodaymotherfucker #youcantbreakme #instarunners #garmin #garminvivosmarthr

A post shared by Kelly Herron (@run_kiwi_run) on

Fitness trackers have also been used to disprove false claims of assault. In 2016, a woman in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was charged with making false statements and tampering with evidence after data collected from her Fitbit showed she had erroneously claimed to be asleep during an alleged sexual assault.

“The Fitbit made all the difference,” Lancaster County district attorney Craig Stedman told WGAL.  

Privacy vs. Peace of Mind

The data collection of our personal devices raises important questions about privacy in the information age. In a statement to the New York Times, a spokesperson for Fitbit declined to talk about the Connecticut case specifically, but cited the company’s policy of providing data only when issued a warrant.

Other tech companies, however, have resisted even that. In 2017, Amazon initially rejected investigators requests for audio recordings that may have been made by an Echo smart speaker in an Arkansas home where a man was murdered. Although Amazon rejected the request on First Amendment grounds, they eventually capitulated, though the case never went to trial.

However, an upcoming case may finally test the legitimacy of smart speakers as a tool for criminal justice. In November, a New Hampshire judge ordered Amazon to turn over recordings from an Echo in a home where the defendant is accused of murdering two women. The case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

Genetic Breakthroughs

In addition to the criminal justice issues raised by smart technology and wearables, there’s a whole new branch of law enforcement stemming from the ever-growing database of genetic connections. In 2017, a decades-old cold case known as the Bear Brook murders was the first criminal case to be solved using the technique known as genetic genealogy.

The field of genetic genealogy is very new, but it has already proved to be extremely promising. As we learn more about our collective ancestry thanks to autosomal DNA testing – which analyzes all 22 of our chromosomes rather than just the X and Y chromosomes – and more and more people submit their DNA to sites like 23andMe (whatever the risks may be), the picture of our collective family tree becomes increasingly refined. And the more genetic connections we map, the easier it becomes for genetic genealogists and their partners in law enforcement to crack unsolved crimes where DNA evidence was collected.

In the case of the Bear Brook murders (which was covered in the fascinating podcast “Bear Brook”), a genetic genealogist named Barbara Rae-Venter worked with police to discover the true identity of a serial killer suspected of murdering a woman and three girls in New Hampshire in the 1980s, all of whom were unidentified for decades. Soon, Rae-Venter was getting calls from other investigators, which turned her attention to one of California’s most infamous cold cases.

Killer Cop

Investigators had long been stumped in the case of the Golden State Killer, a man who committed at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes between 1974 and 1986. However, after hearing of her success in identifying the Bear Brook murder, retired Contra Costa District Attorney inspector Paul Holes reached out to Rae-Venter, who soon agreed to help with the case.

Using an untainted DNA sample collected from one of the crime scenes, Rae-Venter created a profile on GEDmatch, a genealogy site that allows users to upload the data from their 23andMe and DNA tests and cross-references them for family members. After building out family trees and narrowing a list of suspects based on physical descriptions of the attacker, investigators were down to nine names when a woman who was later identified as the killer’s second cousin agreed to a DNA test. That narrowed the list to six people, only one of whom, like the killer, had blue eyes.

In April, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, was finally charged in the case.

“[Rae-Venter’s] expertise proved to be invaluable,” Holes told The Reporter. “And when she was doing it, she was volunteering her time, and it just really speaks to her as a person.”

Cold Cases Heating Up

The closure of these cases and the relative speed at which they were solved—in the case of the Bear Brook murders, investigators clocked 10,000 hours of work on a case that was cracked in 10 hours of data crunching—means that genetic genealogy could be, as an interviewee says in the “Bear Brook” podcast, “the biggest step forward for solving crime since the discovery of DNA itself.”

That’s not hyperbole. Just this week, police announced an arrest in a 12-year-old murder case that was solved in a weekend by genetic genealogists. A 2007 cold case in Carlsbad, California was solved in November using the technique. And an Indiana man recently pled guilty and was sentenced to 80 years in prison after genetic genealogy outed him as a child murderer in a case dating back to 1988.

Now, investigators are hoping that the technique could be used to solve the mother of all cold cases: the Zodiac killings. If police can make an arrest in that infamous case, it could become a watershed moment for law enforcement. Especially if the killer also confessed to his Amazon Echo.