How Smart Devices Like Fitbits Are Helping Law Enforcement Solve Crimes

Experts say consumer reactions vary by company

Iowa law enforcement is using a missing woman's Fitbit to try and retrace her last steps. Getty Images
Headshot of Alissa Fleck

A 20-year-old woman named Mollie Tibbetts went for an evening jog two weeks ago in a rural town in Iowa, and has not been seen or heard from since. When Tibbetts left the home where she was dog-sitting, she had only her cell phone and her Fitbit fitness tracker with her. According to reports, efforts to reach Tibbetts’ phone indicate it is either dead or has been turned off. The last known contact anyone had with Tibbetts was a Snapchat her boyfriend received from her that night.

Along with her social media footprint, law enforcement has turned to her Fitbit, hoping data from the fitness tracker might help piece together more information in the search for the missing woman.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Mitch Mortvedt told CNN that investigators called in the FBI because using a Fitbit in an investigation is “a new arena for “[them].” He added he does not know of another case in Iowa where Fitbit information was used.

“You can actually overlay the location data with the real world to find out what exactly happened,” Thomas Yohannan, an expert on data recovery explained to CBS. “You are essentially trying to find a witness to the events that happened leading up to her [being a] missing person.” Information from her Fitbit has given investigators data about the day Tibbetts disappeared and the route she likely took, as well as other potentially pertinent information like her heart rate at various points.

Data that has been used in marketing and advertising for years—like geotagging on mobile devices—is now being used by law enforcement, said Michael Horn, chief data officer at Huge.

"As far as law enforcement goes, [smart devices] are a powerful tool, but are vulnerable to abuse."
Michael Horn, chief data officer at Huge

“Fitbit data is among the first data set that a modern police department will now think about,” said Horn. “They will think about what devices a person has, what role carriers and online services can play. There is so much information that can be used to triangulate and it is available for law enforcement if they get the proper warrants.”

Smart technology has already been used by law enforcement for years in a number of highly publicized cases. Alexa Echo recordings were admitted as evidence in a 2017 murder trial and the FBI went head-to-head with Apple over unlocking a suspect’s smartphone following the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack.

The FBI-Apple dispute was hugely polarizing, according to a Pew Research Center study—51 percent of people surveyed supported Apple unlocking the phone, while 38 percent did not. Those who did not support unlocking the phone believed it could set a dangerous precedent for future privacy issues.

While consumers have had adverse reactions in recent years to how data collected by corporations is used by those companies and marketers, as well as government actors, it’s less clear how the public feels about law enforcement tapping into this information to solve crimes and whether it impacts their brand perception. Surely any law-abiding citizen wouldn’t mind a company handing their data over to law enforcement, right?

For one, it varies by company, according to Horn, as consumers already have inherent levels of brand trust. One positive is that companies that collect data like Fitbit are fairly transparent about situations like this, said Horn.

“In terms of readability, they are more user-facing than just meant for attorneys,” Horn said. “They will make sure you know that the data if properly requested by law enforcement and third parties for marketing purposes, you own that data but they retain the right to share it when requested.”

In the case of Apple following the San Bernardino attack, it actually helped their image, according to John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog. “The company does emphasize a commitment to privacy,” he said. “Their actions supported that image.”

"Fitbit data is among the first data set that a modern police department will now think about."
Michael Horn, chief data officer at Huge

@AlissaFleck Alissa Fleck is a New York City-based reporter, podcast producer and contributor to Adweek.