Wearable devices are those worn on the body, such as a smartwatch or fitness tracker. This type of technology has expanded over the years, and many people have them to track their heart rate, fitness level, and location. Some are powerful enough to send and receive text messages, stream music, and communicate with others through a two-way radio function. Although wearables have created greater convenience, they also have raised questions of privacy and the legal uses of the data collected by these devices.
Technology continues to develop at an exponential rate, but the laws concerning people’s rights are slow to catch up. Even though electronic wearable devices have been around for years, it has only been recently that courts have addressed privacy matters about the data on them.
Violations of Constitutional Rights
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can’t search a person’s cell phone without a warrant. Doing so would be a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights. If a prosecutor attempts to present such data as evidence, it could be thrown out as the product of an unlawful search and seizure. This decision has also been applied to the information contained in a wearable.
Additionally, courts have recently decided that forcing a person to unlock their personal device could violate Fifth Amendment protections. All people have the right to remain silent and not provide law enforcement with self-incriminating evidence. Judges have said that the information on a cell phone or other electronic device could be considered a type of testimony, and as such, did not have to be handed over to police.
In 2019, a U.S. Judge for the Northern District of California said that making a person unlock their device with a passcode, fingerprint, facial scan, or other biometric data was unlawful.
Does that mean wearable data can never be used as evidence in court?
Not necessarily. If an individual gives consent or the police have a warrant to search property, including the information on a wearable device, the data can be presented in a trial. There have been various cases in which a person’s vitals, location, and even steps have been used to refute and support criminal claims.
For instance, in 2015, a man alleged that his wife was fatally shot by a burglar in their home. As the investigation continued, something about the story didn’t add up. When police searched the data on the woman’s Fitbit, they found that she had taken over 1,200 steps during the time her husband said she was in the basement. The husband was charged with murder and tampering with evidence.
A woman in a separate case was charged with false reporting a rape after investigators looked at the data on her fitness tracker. The information showed that she was awake when she claimed to police that she had been sleeping.
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