Your internet browsing habits reveal a lot about your personality. Oftentimes, web browsing is a solitary activity, if someone were to look at the websites you visit it reveals intimate secrets. A good example would be if you were planning to commit murder and Googled the best methods.
Nowadays it is commonplace for internet browsing to be used as evidence in court, almost like a character testimony. You might think that the type of porn you watch is your biggest secret, but that is the least of your worries.
Listening Devices Voluntarily Placed in Your Home
Smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Echo sit in people’s homes and can control other devices in the room such as the TV. This is achieved by speaking to the in-built virtual assistant and commanding them to perform tasks through real-time conversations.
This doesn’t always work:
“These are not potential listening devices. They are listening devices”. – Gerald Sauer, Wired
In Arkansas, data from an Amazon Echo could be used in murder trial. James Bates has been accused of the murder of acquaintance, Victor Collins, after Collins was discovered floating dead in the hot tub at Bates’ residence. The defendant claims the death was an accidental drowning; whereas investigators believe that Collins may have been strangled and drowned.
Bates’ Amazon Echo could hold important information about the murder, but Amazon were initially reluctant to allow this to be used in court. Maybe they don’t want people to know how much unsolicited data is stored on their servers. Bates paid $180 for a listening device which could help send him to prison.
Amazon argue that Alexa’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. An interesting point. If the device stored all of Bates’ conversations within earshot, could these be used in court? Wouldn’t it be the same as having his phone unwittingly tapped by the police?
With Alexa data being used as evidence for a trial, it sets a precedent where private conversations in your home can be admissible in court.
Google Home may be worse, because Google have a lot more data on people than Amazon. In 2016, the Telegraph reported that Google’s Android phone operating system had a market share of 75.6% across Europe. These phones only work if the user has a Gmail account, which suggests at least 75% of Europeans at least have Google accounts. Those who own mobile phones at least.
That’s not counting people without Android phones who still have accounts and use services like Gmail and Google Calendar. Furthermore, Google is easily the most dominant search engine, so much so, that the act of looking something up on the internet is known as “googling”. There are an estimated 59,371 Google searches on the internet every second. A lot of people use Google products and this data can be used in British courts.
Google Searches Used in Court
I have never killed anybody, but like many people I have searched methods how it can be done. I recently checked how to dissolve a human body in acid; luckily there is a handy Google answer box to provide assistance:
This is all perfectly innocent, unless I was implicated in a murder where a body was dissolved in acid. Then it could be used to send my ass to the electric chair.
Some court cases involve search histories, Andrew Saunders was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her new partner in Cardiff in September 2016.
In court, it was revealed that, Saunders had engaged in some seemingly incriminating searches. To quote the Telegraph’s coverage of the trial:
“Mrs Justice Davies said Saunders began plotting the murders when he began Googling a number of subjects.”
[the easiest way to kill a person]
[how many years for killing a person]
[16 steps to kill someone and not get caught]
[how long do murderers serve in prison]
Some of these searches bring up a handy 16-step guide to the perfect murder:
It should be added that is quite a light-hearted post, but once it is used as evidence in murder trial, the humour is lost.
This was a case supported by overwhelming physical evidence, Saunders’ internet history was not the decisive evidence that was needed.
But, what if someone like myself was accused of murder and they reveal that I used my work computer to read a guide for murder? It certainly would look suspicious and would be used as strong character evidence.
In another case, an Aberdeen schoolboy was murdered, prior to the crime his 16-year-old killer Googled: [how to get rid of someone annoying], shortly before the murder. This normally innocuous search was plastered across many tabloids like The Sun, despite the fact we have no context for this query.
The killer also searched many more incriminating things in the lead-up to the crime, such as
[Aberdeen stabbings death per 1,000]
[illegal knives uk]
[difference between homicide and murder]
The defendant’s lawyer argued that these queries had been taken out of context.
Criminal defence barrister, Brian McConnachie QC told New Statesman:
“It is now a common occurrence for computers to be analysed along with telephones and for all social media to be interrogated. It is almost commonplace for there to be reference to at least one of these in any serious trial.”
It should be concerning that a person’s internet history can be cherry-picked like this. Another example from The Mirror who are horrified by the apparent rise in killer lesbians:
Headlines like this show that people are presuming character qualities based on what a person looks at online. When search history is reported in the media it can make people look very guilty.
The British government has a wealth of power to track citizen’s online behaviour. Thanks to the passing of November 2016’s Investigatory Powers Bill, internet providers are now required to keep a full record of websites each customer has visited.
High ranking members of government organisations such as the HMRC and Metropolitan Police Service have access to this information. While less important agencies like the Food Standards Agency can also access this data. Which is ridiculous.
Overall, there are few positives that can be taken from this, if you commit a crime your internet usage will likely be part of the case.
What I think we have learned is that, if you are planning on killing someone try not do research on a personal computer; also make sure you cut off the head and hands off the body. Furthermore, if you are searching about how to kill someone on a work computer, make sure you don’t kill anyone.