With people leaving increasing amounts of digital traces of their day-to-day activities in one form of technology or the other, these traces of digital evidence are gaining validity as proof in court litigations. And, with the advent of IoT devices that can gather information with microscopic details, digital evidence may become the primary or even the sole source of truth before the law.
The year is 2011. Facebook continues to emerge not only as a globally popular social media platform but also an increasingly lucrative business, valued at around fifty billion dollars. Around this time, reports of a man who claimed to hold a 50% stake in the thriving company came to the fore. Paul Ceglia, a wood pellet salesman from New York, according to himself, paid Zuckerberg (Facebook’s CEO, in case you didn’t know) paid Zuckerberg to create Facebook and was entitled to 50% of the company’s shares. Ceglia quoted a signed contract and a series of email communications between him and Zuckerberg as a form of evidence for the deal. Although Facebook dismissed these claims, the lawsuit continued in court, begging for conclusive evidence from either end. Finally, upon forensic analysis of Ceglia’s computer, lawyers found files that proved to be the smoking gun in favor of Facebook and Zuckerberg, proving Ceglia’s claims to be fraudulent — saving Facebook half of its multi-billion dollar enterprise. This is just one among multiple cases where digital evidence served as conclusive proof. There are records of other cases, such as the one involving the infamous BTK serial killer case being solved due to digital evidence.
With digital devices penetrating our lives further with every passing day and every new invention, we continue to create records of our activities in the form of digital data. Most of the data generated by the common person is used to improve the services offered by business and government organizations. But, as newer technologies enable us to gather greater volumes of reliably accurate data on every living individual, the data gathered can be used for a host of other applications, one them being digital evidence.
Solving cases and passing judgments, just like any other kind of problem-solving practice, require the foundation of hard, accurate facts. To get these facts right, investigators and legal teams perform extensive analyses using every source of data they can access to ensure that they arrive at the right conclusion. These industries also need to verify if the sources of data are reliable. Conventionally, eyewitness accounts have been a leading source of truth in many cases not involving financial matters, where a signed contract usually suffices as the basis for arguments. However, when it comes to investigating and gathering evidence, humans have proven to be unreliable witnesses. Eyewitness misidentification contributes to over 70% of wrongful convictions in America, which are later overturned due to DNA evidence. Witnesses to crimes who offer testimony based on memory are unreliable as well, as human memory has been proven to be malleable. Even signed contracts have been often reported to be forged and tampered with in order to mislead and defraud the arbitrators, and sometimes such efforts succeed in cheating the law. In short, traditional methods of recording events are being proven to be fallacious as they mainly depend on people, who are prone to mistakes, biases, and change over time.
On the contrary, data gathered through digital devices that surround us — from our smartphones to security cameras — cannot be fooled. The data stored by them are nearly extremely difficult to manipulate (I say ‘nearly’ because certain aspects of data can be modified to some extent, but data regarding any activity nowadays hardly gets recorded in just a single form or device). This data can be interpreted objectively and a combination of different data sources can conclusively affirm facts with enough reliability to hold up in a court of law. With the number of devices that track us throughout our waking hours only set to increase with time, digital evidence will be gathered on everything we do whether we like it or not. And, seeing the obvious superiority of the evidence provided by these devices over any other form of evidence, it would make perfect sense to adopt digital evidence.
Essentially any data that can identify an individual — including their whereabouts and any other information regarding them at any given point — stored in the binary form can be considered, at least loosely, as digital evidence. Digital evidence includes the simplest form of information such communications data such as telephone call records, text message evidence, emails, etc or any other binary bit of information that can undeniably confirm the involvement in a specific incident in a specific way. It can be the smallest bit of data. In fact, in the popular BTK murder case, the digital lead that helped the police track the murderer was the metadata on a deleted file that was recovered from a floppy disk sent by the murderer. While that case was solved partially due to the murderer himself deciding to communicate with the police, with the slew of digital devices constantly collecting data on us, we cannot go “off the grid” and escape without leaving a digital footprint somewhere.
So, what constitutes digital evidence? It includes all the data gathered by our personal devices like smartphones and laptops that collect information like location, our browsing and communication (call, text, and social media) history, the pictures and audio recordings stored on these devices; the data gathered by public security and communications systems like public Wi-Fi networks and security cameras, etc. Any other form of solid, digital data that can help in incriminating or exonerating a person of a specific crime can serve as digital evidence. For instance, the presence of a person at a crime scene can be identified by a combination of the GPS location of their phone, and glimpses of the person on the security camera footage on the way to the scene of the crime. Add to this big data, the newly added contributor of digital evidence which has made it possible for organizations the ability to gather information on people at a highly granular level and in vast quantities.
The advent of IoT will increase the volume, variety, and the veracity of big data that can be collected on each individual. IoT, which runs with the help of a dense network of sensors can gather much more than simply the location and identity, but will also gather more microscopic details regarding the actions performed by individuals. For instance, sensors attached to self-driving cars, or installed in smart homes can gather information regarding human activity within their proximity. It can add another dimension of evidence to the existing data gathered by cameras and personal devices. Furthermore, the fact that the data from the devices like cameras and smartphones will have to be transferred through the IoT network, passing through multiple devices in the process, will ensure that the data that might serve as evidence is easily discoverable. This increases the likelihood of the data being recovered as there are records of it on multiple devices, instead of solely being on a user’s personal device. As IoT devices become capable of gathering even more detailed information regarding people and events, digital evidence may become the sole source of truth in cases not just involving violent crimes but also other kinds of legal violations.
Although it is a human judge dispensing justice or human officers making an arrest, they need to do that with maximum certainty. This certainty should be founded on objective truth and undeniable facts. These facts are increasingly provided digital evidence which will only become more valuable in the future. In fact, it is even possible that the presence of the myriad of evidence-gathering tools may discourage potential criminals and deter criminal acts to preserve law and order, making the prospect of IoT in digital evidence highly hopeful.
Naveen is the Founder and CEO of Allerin, a software solutions provider that delivers innovative and agile solutions that enable to automate, inspire and impress. He is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years of experience, with extensive experience in customizing open source products for cost optimizations of large scale IT deployment. He is currently working on Internet of Things solutions with Big Data Analytics. Naveen completed his programming qualifications in various Indian institutes.