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Technology’s Role in Evidence-Gathering (Part 1)

Audiences are continuously entertained and mystified by crime investigation shows. The smallest yet most critical detail is uncovered like finding a needle in a haystack. Seasoned detectives then plug said evidence into a magical database that identifies the perpetrator all within 50 minutes or less. The storyline may have been developed for television, but many TV crime investigation fans wonder how this TV world compares to the technology accessible by law enforcement agencies in real life?

In reality, it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve seen the actual impact of technology in evidence gathering. Let’s take a dive into a few of the fascinating advances in technology’s role in the legal process.

Facial & Tattoo Recognition

Much of the world uses facial recognition software to open our phones, tablets, or apps. Even our toddlers have figured out how to use such tools – turning the device to read our facial structure, unlocking the technology, and gaining access when we are otherwise preoccupied. But how does facial recognition software work to identify criminals or missing persons? Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren Partner Joe Cargile recently attended a workshop where Charles Middelstadt of The Middelstadt Firm spoke about electronic surveillance and effective tools used by law enforcement.

Let’s say someone is caught on-camera committing a crime. Their image can be compared to an image database, and findings are provided with confidence scores.

All the software matches are reviewed by a human analyst who then narrows the results down to what is given to investigators to show to eyewitnesses or use to build their case. Many Georgia law enforcement agencies are using facial recognition technology to aid their investigators.

“When using facial recognition software, the computer creates a unique numeric representation of the face. It is then compared to a database of facial images, such as a driver’s license database, to identify the individual,” Middelstadt explains.

Another recognition tool, tattoos, have been used for decades to identify suspects, but now law enforcement can leave the binders behind and employ technology not only to search but also to connect groups. In a recent partnership between Purdue University and Indiana State Police, researchers created an app where law enforcement can share photos of graffiti and gang tattoos along with time stamps and GPS coordinates. Then officers can map out gang activity in a community based on these identifiers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to adopt the technology to connect international gangs with drug and human trafficking crimes.

Digital Dragnets & Geofencing

If you’re old enough, you may remember the 1950s TV show Dragnet (and its spin-off series and films spanning the next four decades). But did you ever know what that term means? A dragnet is a policing term that refers to the techniques law enforcement uses to find a criminal. One common example is a traffic stop to locate a key witness or suspect in a specific area. Today, digital dragnets apply technology to take these age-old techniques to a new level.

Operation Shield, a smart policing initiative by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), is an example of a digital dragnet. According to APF, “The program has installed a canopy of some 3,000 cameras across every zone of the city, each designed to be networked in real time to the Atlanta Police Department’s Video Integration Center (VIC). The VIC monitors networked cameras in real time, enabling APD to enhance police visibility and crime deterrence.”

Connect Atlanta, an additional initiative combined with Operation Shield, will also allow individuals and businesses to add existing cameras to a registry from which APD can request footage should a crime occur in their vicinity. This collaboration increases the size of the digital dragnet and allows law enforcement to better track crimes as they are occurring.

Privately owned companies, like Flock Safety, tout the success of their digital dragnet technology claiming, “Thousands of communities across the country use our proprietary devices and cloud-based software to help law enforcement solve upwards of 5 percent of all reported crime in America.”

Individuals can also be part of the digital dragnet whether they know it or not. Geofence warrants draw on tracking data collected by cell phones to find people who were close to a crime scene. The warrants have become popular among law enforcement officers in cases where they have run out of leads using traditional investigatory techniques.

These warrants have been used to help solve all sorts of crimes. Take the recent Alex Murdaugh investigation for example. Law enforcement used the “Find My iPhone” feature to locate victim Maggie Murdaugh’s missing cell phone. Experts then compared GPS data from cell phones and Alex’s vehicle (along with other cell phone evidence) to determine that he lied to police when he stated that he was not at the crime scene prior to the discovery of his murdered wife and son.

The Takeaway

For crime show junkies, it’s kind of a relief to know that real-world technology is catching up to what we’ve seen on television for years. But how is all this evidence collection applicable in a case? What’s permissible? In part two of this series, Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren experts illuminate the legality behind these advances.

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