Dashcams, fitness trackers and smartphone cameras changing the game for police investigating serious crimes
The police line was once so simple: if you’ve seen something, contact Crime Stoppers.
- Google Maps and Street View has been used as evidence in a murder trial
- Private CCTV and dashcam is being used by police to establish timelines of potential crimes
- However, a criminologist said the impact on crime rates was “modest”
But these days, it’s a little different.
“If you have dashcam footage, please contact us.”
The public’s insatiable use of technology has evolved into a critical crime-fighting tool, creating what one expert calls “a web of surveillance” in Australian cities, suburbs and on the country’s road network.
“These days, the police are going straight to the cameras,” University of South Australia adjunct professor of law and criminal justice Rick Sarre told the ABC.
“Have a think about it, there’s dashcams, smartphones, CCTV on businesses or homes, and even cyclists with head cams.
“So much is recorded, and cameras can’t lie.”
CCTV has long been a go-to strategy for police, as they piece together witnesses or look for that smoking gun in a range of cases.
But the force’s relationship with new technology has evolved with the times.
CCTV cameras have become commonplace in residential homes and a critical part of policing. (Source: Hikvision)
Police can now check location information from a suspect’s fitness tracker or smartphone to see if they were near a crime scene — even if location services are turned off.
The Australian Parliament last week passed new encryption laws, forcing technology companies to allow police access to encrypted messages.
Smart home devices such as Google Home or Amazon Echo have been used to help defend a murder case in the US.
Yesterday it was revealed a Google image taken by a passing car mapping Sydney’s western suburbs became a critical piece of evidence in helping bring down a down a local drug cartel.
The use of dashcam footage in cars, which is becoming common technology, has become a particular focus for police.
Not only is it helping solve the more obvious traffic-related offences, it is helping to crack murder cases.
As the investigation continued, a witness came forward to tell police he saw the main suspect throw a set of keys — later identified as Ms Haddad’s — into Sydney Harbour.
It is understood dashcam and CCTV footage was then used to corroborate the story.
“We, as citizens, are creating a web of surveillance,” University of Sydney criminology professor Murray Lee said.
“It’s hard to say how often police are going down this path, but there is little doubt accessing footage is the go-to option.”
A recent investigation found even if users turn “location history” off, some Google apps track location. (AP: Seth Wenig)
Professor Lee said the use of public technology such as dashcam footage and home CCTV footage, in the form of camera doorbells, was becoming the lynchpin in helping police pull together time sequences.
But he conceded there were limitations.
“The public seem to think police can zoom in and see the reflection of a person being murdered in someone’s eyeball, like they do on the TV in CSI,” he said.
“It doesn’t work like that.
“I’d say one of problems is the public don’t realise how pretty basic tech can help.”
Technology and police: A complex relationship
The “web of surveillance” creates issues relating to privacy, according to University of Technology Sydney law professor Ketherine Biber, with the legal access to information an obvious sticking point.
“[These technologies] establish a narrative of events, particularly in instances where eyewitness accounts are unavailable or inconsistent,” Professor Biber said.
“[But] it is important to make clear that new methods do not diminish the standards to which this evidence is held.
“All evidence is supposed to be obtained in manner which is lawful and proper and, when it isn’t, a court can exclude it.”
University of Queensland criminologist Lorraine Mazerolle said the relationship between citizens, police and technology was a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, the proliferation of devices has reduced vexatious complaints against police, increased compliance, and provided evidence for court,” Professor Mazerolle said.
“On the other hand, recordings are no panacea, the storage issues are enormous and the impacts on crime [are] modest.”
NSW Police were contacted for comment.