From Google Searches to Cell Phone Data to Ring Cameras, Technology Keeps Tripping Up Criminals
The murder of Cohassett’s Ana Walshe, the Idaho murders, and other recent cases highlight the risks and rewards of data use by investigators
One topic of conversation in Massachusetts lately has been the Google search history of Cohasset’s Brian Walshe around the time his wife, Ana, went missing.
As prosecutors revealed last week, among his search engine queries were:
“How long before a body starts to smell”
“10 ways to dispose of a dead body if you really need to”
“How long for someone to be missing to inherit”
Allegedly Walshe did his research on his young son’s iPad instead of his own phone or computer, but that didn’t keep police from finding it. Then there’s security video from a Home Depot where Walshe spent $450 on cleaning supplies, mops, a tarp—and a hatchet. More evidence came from his cell phone data, which conflicted with his account of events. It all added up to his arrest, and Walshe is now being held without bail on a murder charge, although his wife’s body hasn’t been found.
Matched against technology, Walshe proved no criminal genius, and he isn’t the only one lately. The alleged killer of four Idaho college students was tripped up by security cameras and cell phone data along with familial DNA matching, despite being a criminology student himself. Some January 6 US Capitol insurrectionists have been caught with the help of their own cell-phone videos and social media posts. Front-porch pirates have been nabbed for stealing Amazon deliveries thanks to doorbell cameras. And a New Jersey husband who told police an elaborate story about his wife’s death was arrested for killing her when her FitBit contradicted his account of her murder.
The proliferation of personal and wearable technology, along with more security cameras, has made it increasingly difficult for criminals to get away with their crimes, trapping them in a web of metadata that is sometimes impossible to elude.
We talked about this with Shea Cronin, a Boston University Metropolitan College assistant professor of criminal justice and chair of applied social sciences. He is an expert in crime policy and crime data analysis and teaches courses in criminology, policing, and crime analysis and evaluation methods.
Can criminals hide their trail in the digital age? “It’s just really, really difficult to do that entirely,” Cronin says.
With Shea Cronin
BU Today: Obviously these technologies have been around for a while, but this seems to be happening a lot lately. Have we just reached critical mass?
Cronin: I think that the readily available information that is out there has grown a great deal. Everything from the data, obviously, that your cell phone gives off, including your location, to being connected to surveillance cameras that are kind of pervasive, from Ring cameras to more security cameras to cameras on highways, and that kind of thing. Everything is just documented one way or another more easily today, and law enforcement can gain access to all that information and start to piece together the puzzle and confirm things that they suspect are happening.
One thing leads to another, so like when they get information about the cell phone sort of locations, they can then look into particular cameras that they find in that area. So like now, in the Cohasset case, they can see that he put something into a dumpster in Swampscott. One data source can lead to another, and when they’re integrated together, then there’s a big picture there, and maybe it’s greater than the sum of the parts.
BU Today: These are mostly not criminal masterminds, but is part of it that people don’t even realize how much data is out there and available to law enforcement?
Cronin: People leave evidence when they commit crimes like the ones that we’re talking about. I think that it’s very, very difficult to completely erase your movements and your search for information. And we’re probably not all entirely aware of how that can all be used by law enforcement.
There’s a ton of open source information. If you share something online on Facebook or Twitter, in particular, or anything else, it comes with location stamps a lot of the time. There’s things that people don’t realize they’d be doing that are giving off information that could be important later.
BU Today: There are so many types and sources of data out there that people don’t think about—toll transponders and the black boxes in cars, for example.
Cronin: I actually was an expert witness on a case out of Illinois a couple of years ago, where it was the car’s transponder that was used to see that the suspect in that case, the defendant, traveled to Indiana, and then back for sort of like no explicit reason, right? The prosecutors alleged that he went to purchase a firearm where he could do it without leaving a trace, but he’d left a trace of the travel. I’m not sure that that defendant knew that that was all being captured, and of course you also drive through tolls potentially or your car is seen on video camera. It was a domestic violence type of case, an ex-wife who was killed. Ultimately he was acquitted, though.
BU Today: But it’s very difficult to really take successful evasive action?
Cronin: The alleged killer in the Idaho case, he turns off his cell phone right when he allegedly perpetrates the murders, but then when he is driving, he turns it back on, because he takes a long way home. So they have this record of him driving very early in the morning in an area that would kind of be between the two places. And then they connect to those video cameras and work back. Ring cameras, if they know your car basically went down this street, then they can get all the neighbors’ Ring cameras, and then they can get a description of the car.
BU Today: Are people concerned, and should people be concerned, about civil liberties? You always give up rights like privacy whenever you start using a website, when you turn on your Siri, or whatever. Is there something here that people should be concerned about?
Cronin: I think so. Especially the combination of all of those data sets and sources of information in ways that we probably don’t quite understand, how they can all be used when they’re integrated. We might think, okay, I agree to share information about my phone this way. We might not envision that’s going to be connected to some other data source. And a lot of times that’s just done to maybe sell you something, but law enforcement can really integrate lots of different public sources of information into one sort of database, where they can then figure out where you are, and what you’re up to.
You leave trails wherever you go, and any one of those trails might not really be particularly useful to law enforcement, but when they’re all combined together they can identify folks they’re looking for a lot more easily. And so for me, the civil rights question is always about like, you know, how much of this stuff is changing people’s behaviors right before they get involved in crime. Could it have a chilling effect on what you do and I do, in ways that are noncriminal? That’s really the problem.
BU Today: Building a bigger picture is going to be particularly important in the Cohasset case if they do not have a body, right?
Cronin: He had a very thin story to begin with that would be easily verified by the technology trail that his wife would have left—had she done something that is completely out of the ordinary, which is fly to DC in the morning of New Year’s Day. [And it wasn’t.] And so then it’s not a whodunit, they’re not trying to find out who was the culprit. They’re building that circumstantial case. All that put together sort of really adds up to something that becomes a stronger case for the prosecutors, and which may very well lead to actual physical evidence.
BU Today: The danger here is that this becomes comical and we don’t take it seriously, we forget the victim. But those Google searches—if someone had written that in a TV show no one would have believed it.
Cronin: Yeah, it is somewhat comical, even though it’s a horrific situation. [Criminals] have to find information right? It’s kind of ridiculous that he’s Googling how to do these things, but on the other hand, he’s stuck because he needs to figure out the best way to do this. So where do we all turn, right? In the process, he is getting very specific with his search terms, like, what’s better, to put a body in a bag or in the woods, and you know, I wonder what the results are. I’m not going to go search that myself.