Can Fitbit data help police in the hunt for missing 20-year-old runner, Mollie Tibbetts?

can fitbit data help police find mollie tibbetts

Since University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts disappeared almost four weeks ago, several American law enforcement agencies have been using any resources possible to find her.

The 20-year-old was dog sitting at her boyfriend’s house in Brooklyn, Iowa, and went for a run that evening. The next morning, she was reported missing when she didn’t turn up for work. Searches by police and volunteers have come up empty-handed.

On Monday afternoon, the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) held a news conference to update the public on their investigation. They’re continuing to follow up on any leads, and they launched a new website to receive tips. They’ve taken in more than 1,500 tips and conducted more than 500 interviews so far.

“We feel confident that this will ultimately lead to finding Mollie,” DCI Special Agent in Charge Richard Rahn said Monday. “We’ll continue to strive to bring her back home safely.”

While details about the leads remain scarce, there is one new kind of data that might end up playing an important role: the Iowa police have been working with the FBI to use her Fitbit and social media data to look for clues. They’ve been tight-lipped about what information they’re using, but Rahn said they’re trying to find any information that’s relevant to the case.

“We’re trying to use all avenues and techniques to locate Mollie, including any devices she might have, such as the Fitbit, as well as social media outlets,” he told Runner’s World US by phone.

In Iowa in America, law enforcement agencies can use personal data from devices based on family consent, search warrants, and subpoenas. Most other states allow law enforcement officials to use data based on consent and search warrants as well, while some restrict using subpoenas to obtain information. The FBI declined to comment on “specific tools or techniques utilised in criminal investigations,” including this case.

But this isn’t the first time where law enforcement agencies and forensics teams have used smart device data to gain insight on things like GPS locations, heart rate data, steps, and other kinds of activity. A handful of cases have actually gone to trial with data from wearables, showing that the information mined from these devices can be useful in police matters—and may have the potential to help other runners in the future, too.

How can the police use fitness tracker data?

While runners have sworn by their fitness trackers for years, they still represent a new frontier in the legal world: law enforcement agencies are still discovering its uses in tracking data for investigations.

But in some cases, it’s already begun. In one of the most publicised cases in the US, Richard Dabate was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife, Connie, after police used Fitbit data to contradict his alibi.

A few days before Christmas 2015, Dabate called police and told them a man broke into their home, shot his wife, and tied him to a chair. But after investigators mined data from her Fitbit, they found at the time Richard claimed Connie had been shot, her tracker showed something different: she walked 1,200 feet around their house during that time.

The police used an alarm system, her Fitbit, mobile phone, and social media posts to create a timeline that contradicted Dabate’s statements. The case is ongoing, and his next court date is late August.

“Using this type of data is case-dependent and is often useful when there is a gap or mystery in case specifics,” said Craig Stedman, the district attorney in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

In fact, Stedman and his team of computer forensics investigators used Fitbit data to unravel a sexual assault case in 2015. The woman claimed she was asleep in the guest room at her bosses’ home, when a man broke into the house, beat her, and raped her. She said she lost her Fitbit during the struggle, which police later found in the hallway. The woman agreed to give police her Fitbit, username, and password, and they found that she was awake and walking around during that night instead. The woman was charged with making false statements and tampering with evidence.

“We saw steps all over the place for hours proceeding her call to police,” Stedman said.

Although the type of data available depends on the device (a fitness tracker, iPad, iPhone, etc.), Stedman said law enforcement officials often look for GPS, heart rate, steps, and activity spikes. They don’t always need the device to sync to a computer to be able to pull data, he noted, which could be helpful in locating those who go missing, as in Mollie Tibbetts case.

At the same time, Fitbit users have control over their information and location data in the device’s settings.

“Location data is not collected by us unless a user gives us access to that data, and at any point, the user can remove that access,” according to a statement Fitbit provided to Runner’s World US. Unless someone decides to do a location-based run, for instance, location isn’t always recorded. GPS doesn’t run in the background on Fitbits, and its only device that has a built-in GPS is the Fitbit Ionic.

“We don’t share customers’ personal information unless they direct us to do so, or under the limited circumstances described in our privacy policy, including in response to valid legal process,” the statement read.

Other companies—such as Garmin, MapMyRun, and Strava—have similar access to “cloud-stored” data that police may be able to access through warrants. These policies are covered in the companies’ terms of service agreements that users typically skip through when beginning to use an app or device. Garmin and Moov (another company that makes fitness trackers) didn’t respond to interview requests Monday.

To be better prepared, Lancaster County police, attorneys, and investigators now incorporate discussions about data evidence into their training sessions.

“We remind everyone to keep an open mind and think about new potential avenues,” Stedman said. “We may not need it for 100 cases, but for that rare one, we need to think differently.”

What are the privacy issues with using data from a running watch or fitness tracker?

As more criminal and civil cases involve the possibility of data tracking, medical ethics scholars are concerned about the privacy and security of this kind of health information. Informed consent and long-term considerations of data use often come up.

“We need to look broadly at the world we’re creating and where these vast amounts of personal data are available about all of us,” said Kieran O’Doherty, Ph.D., an applied social psychology researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

In 2016, O’Doherty and his colleagues wrote a medical ethics paper that raised concerns about potential conundrums the stemmed from data from fitness trackers, which was used to help inform forensic investigations, lawsuits, and tragic events.

“Who can access this data, and who can’t? Can it affect your children and grandchildren?” he asked. “Can we leave it to private companies, such as Fitbit and Facebook to govern their data? No, we cannot.”

For now, public agencies seem to be tackling these concerns on a case-by-case basis. A missing person investigation, for instance, seems different than a criminal investigation case, said Brian Jackson, Ph.D., a senior physical scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank based in Santa Monica, California. In early 2017, Jackson and colleagues wrote about “future-proofing justice” to address how technological changes could affect individuals’ rights.

“It’s easier to answer this when it comes to missing persons cases or if people are really in trouble,” Jackson told Runner’s World US. “But there are complicated questions around this technology we carry everywhere in our pockets.”

In Tibbetts’ case, the data and social media interactions may help in the end, as other promising leads seem to be lacking. A Facebook group, Finding Mollie Tibbetts, has more than 60,000 members. Cross-country truck drivers have posted pictures of her on their trucks, and Iowa restaurants are holding percentage nights to donate funds to her family and her search. Crime Stoppers of Central Iowa is currently offering a $366,000 reward for information that leads to her safe return.

Also in the news this week: 

Israeli runner celebrates too early at the European Championships 

Volha Mazuronak wins marathon, despite nosebleed and wrong turn 

A version of this article appeared on Runnersworld.com