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Fitbit Data Helps Solve Murder; Restarts Debate About Tech Companies Helping Law Enforcement

While the debate rages on about whether tech companies should open up devices of certain users for investigation by law enforcement, one aspect where the data collected by smart devices is surely helping—nailing murderers.

Vishal Mathur | News18.com@vishalmathur85

Updated:October 5, 2018, 9:14 AM IST
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Fitbit Data Helps Solve Murder; Restarts Debate About Tech Companies Helping Law Enforcement
Representative Image: Fitbit
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As it turns out, the data collected by a Fitbit fitness wearable helped nail a murderer. And his lies. The San Jose Police Department studied the data that Karen Navarra, 67, was wearing at the time she passed away, and used the surveillance camera footage from outside her home to identity that her stepfather Anthony Aiello, 90, was indeed the murderer. The New York Times reports that Aiello claimed that he brought homemade pizza and biscotti for Navarra, she then walked him to the door and gave him a couple of roses as a thank you gesture. And then he went away. But the heart rate data from Navarra's Fitbit Alta fitness band showed otherwise, according to investigators.

The data collected from the Fitbit Alta wearable indicated that Navarra's heart rate spiked significantly and then slowed down rapidly and eventually stopped, all while Aiello was in Navarra’s home. The duration of the logs being used by the San Jose Police Department focus on the 15 minutes between the first spike in heart rate, and when the detection finally ceased. The Investigators then matched this data with surveillance footage to piece together the timeline, which pegs Aiello's car as parked in Navarra's driveway during the unusual heart rate activity. But the clincher is perhaps that he left about five minutes after Navarra’s heart rate detection stopped completely.

One of Navarra's coworkers found her body five days after Aiello's visit. The San Jose Police Department have arrested Aiello and he's been charged with murder.

You may ask the question—should the data collected by someone’s wearable be available to law enforcement agencies, in any case? Fitbit’s privacy policy clearly states that the company may, “may preserve or disclose information about you to comply with a law, regulation, legal process, or governmental request; to assert legal rights or defend against legal claims; or to prevent, detect, or investigate illegal activity, fraud, abuse, violations of our terms, or threats to the security of the services or the physical safety of any person.”

This is not the first time a smart wearable or a fitness band is coming in handy to provide data in a criminal case.

In 2015, a woman’s murder in her home in Connecticut was pieced together by the police using her Fitbit—it clarified the time of death with the movement and activity logs, and helped investigators nail the murdered. In 2017, a Garmin Vivosmart wearable recorded location and activity data to log a woman’s struggle with an attacker in Seattle in 2017.
Earlier this year, investigators in Iowa, used the data collected by the Fitbit of a 20-year old student, to discover her body after she had been missing for a month, and when matched with surveillance videos, helped nail a 24-year old man for the murder.

This again brings the whole debate to the forefront, about whether tech companies should open up devices of certain users for investigation by law enforcement, one aspect where the data collected by smart devices is surely helping—nailing murderers. There are instances where the same might be misused, but as proved in Navarra's investigation, there is a positive side to it too.

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