If you paid any attention at all to the trial of Alex Murdaugh, you already know that cell phone data had quite an impact on the outcome. In addition to video taken from the victim’s cell phone that proved Murdaugh was in the vicinity of the murders at the time they occurred, cell phone data also exposed the movements of Murdaugh and his victims and the time frame in which that movement occurred. It may lead some to wonder just how much police can discover and use cell phones during the investigation of a crime.
Phones Aid Police Investigations
Expert testimony in the Murdaugh trial revealed that a single device could generate up to 9,000 pages of information from a set time period. The types of things that cell phones might be used for in a given criminal investigation are numerous, with this list of a dozen uses for starters:
- Phones can provide investigators with contacts, frequently visited locations, etc., that could provide leads;
- The phone’s GPS can be used to locate suspects;
- Phones can be pinged by cell towers to determine their general location;
- A person’s cell phone can be linked to a precise location at a certain time;
- A phone’s movements, as well as the number of steps taken by the person carrying it, can be tracked;
- Data related to phone calls can be preserved;
- The time that facial recognition was activated can be determined;
- The times that the phone was picked up and set down are recorded;
- Social media posts can be retrieved;
- Data searches can be recovered (such as how to slowly poison someone, for example);
- Investigators can discover with whom calls occurred and the duration of those calls;
- Text messages, emails, and photos can all be retrieved.
Getting Their Hands on Data
There are many ways in which police can tap into phone data:
- With a person’s permission;
- With a judge’s order;
- With a subpoena.
To get a subpoena, police must show that they have probable cause to suspect that data on the phone will connect to a crime. The number of criminals who are convicted of crimes in part due to cell phone data increases by the day. Civil rights watchers note that there is a gray area around obtaining such data, however, noting that hundreds of monthly requests for tracking in real-time are made to the largest carriers of wireless plans. Are innocent people at risk of having their privacy invaded? The courts have not said a lot on that topic.
Other Ways Cell Phones Help
Who doesn’t have a cell phone these days? That means the public has the ability to report crimes the second they occur. Even people who are hesitant to interact directly with police make use of anonymous tip lines, often available for texts and/or calls. Another great use of cell phones: people everywhere video crimes are in progress. Continue reading