A murder trial in Germany could hinge on a novel piece of evidence: health data from the accused’s phone. Hussein Khavari is accused of raping and killing Maria Ladenburger in Freiburg im Breisgau. The details of the grisly crime—she was a young medical student and daughter of a top-ranking EU official, found dead in her town’s shallow river—as well as Khavari’s own complicated background—he was a refuge, with a contested age and country of origin—gripped Germany throughout 2016, remaining in the headlines long after the crime was uncovered.
Khavari confessed his guilt at the beginning of his trial last fall. He had been connected to the crime by DNA taken from a strand of hair found on Ladenburger’s body. But Khavari also contested some of the details of the crime. The crime was committed after a day of drinking and smoking hashish, he claims. He had lost control of himself, had snapped when he saw his victim.
That’s where his iPhone comes in. Investigators are using information from the phone’s Health app to help prove that Khavari did not act in the heat of passion.
But first they had to access the data. Khavari initially refused to turn over his PIN to allow police access to his phone. So, according to an expert with the police cybercrime commission who testified at Khavari’s trial, investigators approached an unnamed company in Munich who was able to crack the phone. (That should sound familiar. The FBI engaged in a similar strategy to decrypt the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, following the mass shooting in 2015.) After months of work, police were able to gain access only shortly before the trial began, according to the German newspaper Die Welt.
That cell phone data, or handy-daten in German, is proving essential to the prosecution’s case against Khavari and could show that he did not act im affekt, or “in the heat of the moment.”
“This has hit us like a bomb,” Freiburg’s chief of police Peter Egetemaier said.
Using the geodata from the phone and video footage from a nearby police were able to place Khavari at the scene of the crime. The geodata also showed that Khavari remained there from 2:46 until 4:02 am. To learn about what occurred during that period, investigators looked at Khavari’s Health app.
The Health app comes preinstalled on all iPhones and cannot be removed. Like a digital pedometer, it records information such as the amount of steps you’ve taken and how many stairs you’ve climbed.
Information gathered from the app showed that Khavari took only a few steps during the time he was at the crime scene. But it twice recorded him as “climbing stairs.” Die Welt reports:
For the investigators, it was quickly clear what that meant: These were the two moments when Hussein K. first dragged his victim down the bank and then climbed back up.
To confirm this version of the events, the Freiburg police sent an investigator back to the scene of the crime, equipped with an iPhone. When he moved up and down the banks of the river, the Health App recorded his actions as climbing stairs. “For the first time, we correlated health and geodata,” Egetemaier says.
Of course, this is not the only time cell phone data alone has been used in a prosecution. Cell site data is frequently used as evidence of an individual’s location. Indeed, the Supreme Court will soon decide whether the warrantless seizure and search of cell site data violates the Fourth Amendment. Cell-set data in that case, Carpenter v. United States, was used to connect Timothy Carpenter to a series of robberies targeting, ironically, cell phones.
Health data, too, has played a significant role in solving crimes. Last summer, police arrested a Connecticut man for his wife’s murder, after data from her Fitbit showed her walking around after her husband claimed she was shot by an intruder. Similarly, an Ohio man was charged with arson last February, after his home burned to the ground. His pacemaker provided some of the key evidence against him: Data on his heart rate helped show that he had set the fire himself.
The use of Health app data in a criminal prosecution may have been a first for investigators in Freiburg, but it will likely not be the last. Indeed, as sources of relevant digital evidence continue to grow, more and more investigations are likely to hinge on such information. Today, the smoking gun isn’t a gun at all. It’s just an app.