Your fridge could help keep you under house arrest


Recently, the Rand Corporation published a report on “Using Future Internet Technologies to Strengthen Criminal Justice,” exploring how technology could change the criminal justice system. Authors John Hollywood, Dulani Woods, Richard Silberglitt, and Brian Jackson focused on the need to improve web-based infrastructure, setting up virtual courtrooms, and general tech education. They also discussed the possibility of folding the Internet of Things (IoT) into fighting crime, primarily as a means to track an officer’s location and her health. But they also consider how devices in a smart house can be folded into monitoring those under house arrest—essentially recruiting the smart items in your house to do the work of law enforcement.

In the report, the authors describe how IoT could be made use of in the coming years. Specifically, they write, smart objects could serve as “Internet-enabled biomedical sensors for officers,” as a means of “improving the tracking of officers within buildings,” and of “identify[ing] officers in close proximity.” They also reference, “IoT-enabled models for house arrest.”

The authors elaborate:

Of interest, three of the four needs concerned furthering officer health and safety, which were similar to clusters of IT needs for law enforcement. Thus, protecting the health and  safety of officers appears to be the principal topic of interest in this area. The final need involved the use of further sensors to supplement body-worn Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to locate and track offenders who are under community corrections supervision.

In a phone interview with Fusion, co-author John Hollywood emphasized that the primary use of IoT technology would be keeping tabs on officers to help keep them safe. Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other comparable devices can help communicate to police if an officer is experiencing health problems, Hollywood said, like if an officer suffered a heart attack while on the job.

Web-connected household items could also stand in for GPS devices. “GPS is designed for general location… for example, if you’re driving a car your GPS tracking [device will] assume the car is on a road. If you’re in a house or a building, the signal might be blocked altogether,” Hollywood said.

In this scenario, a web-connected fridge or thermostat could offer deeper insight into whether the officer is in a house, and where exactly that officer is. Of course, this raises a number of privacy and security concerns – police communicating with the devices in a private home is concerning, to say the least. The implications of this do not escape Hollywood, who said, “Undoubtedly, a number of major privacy and cyber security issues [would] need to be worked out.” Issues of privacy and security were also raised in the Rand report.

Police could also use web-connected household devices to keep an eye on those under house arrest. According to Hollywood, this could be a good thing for the former inmate. “It could give an offender a more generous version of house arrest,” he said, suggesting that a person under house arrest with certain caveats—like leaving the house to go to work—could enjoy a larger range of motion thanks to the IoT. Rather than using a tracking device to keep tabs on the offender, police could check in with the thermostat in her office to see if she’s where she’s supposed to be. A subtle, but unnerving, way to do it.

In any case, law enforcement has its work cut out for it. Motherboard recently reported on a hacker who was able to disable the GPS device used to track someone under house arrest, From Motherboard:

[Security Research William Turner] got a sample device from GWG International, a Taiwanese manufacturer. The device uses GPS and radio frequencies to determine the position of the person with the anklet, and uses a cell data network to send the coordinates back to monitors. By studying the device he obtained, he found out that it’s possible to spoof its location.

The tech world moves so fast, even a theoretical plan could already be outdated.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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