Pacemaker Data Used on the Beat — Ohio Man Implicated in Arson Investigation

An EZpass stuck to your car’s windshield so you don’t have to stop at tolls. A fitness watch strapped to your wrist to help keep you in shape. A smart speaker in the kitchen to play your favorite podcast while you cook. A multitude of cell phone apps to shop, to keep track of appointments, and to manage your finances. Over the last decade, chances are you’ve accumulated a sizable collection of apps and gadgets that track and record various aspects of your life. These devices make our lives more convenient. They make us feel safer. They gamify otherwise menial chores. They keep us entertained… There is, of course, a tradeoff. These devices and apps are collecting an incomprehensible amount of data about each of us. Taken as a whole, this data paints an incredibly detailed portrait of our personal lives. But this is a tradeoff we agree to. We can choose which types of data and how much of it we are comfortable sharing. But imagine for a minute that your health depended on a device that tracked you in ways you weren’t comfortable with — a device you couldn’t just turn off.

In September of 2016, an Ohio man woke up in the middle of the night to find that his house was on fire. Instead of panicking, he gathered some personal belongings and stuffed them hastily into a suitcase, smashed the bedroom window with his cane, and threw it outside. As the fire continued to grow, he grabbed a computer, filled another bag with clothes, and carried them to safety. All in all, he was able to rescue 15 of his most prized possessions before he escaped by jumping through a broken window. Once outside, by the light of the burning structure, he placed his belongings neatly in his car and watched the flames devour his $400,000 home while waiting for emergency services to arrive. At least, this was Ross Compton’s version of events — and arson investigators quickly had doubts.

First, there were telltale signs of arson at the scene; traces of gasoline were found as well as indicators that the blaze had started in multiple locations. But it was Compton’s unbelievable tale that really raised eyebrows. Saving a treasure trove of belongings while a scorching inferno loomed, and thick, acrid smoke filled the air would have been an impressive physical feat for an Olympic athlete who moonlights as a volunteer firefighter — but Compton’s condition was far from robust. The 59-year-old had a medical ailment that necessitated the use of a pacemaker and an external heart pump. The underlying maladies that mandate the use of cardiac pacing devices aren’t exactly compatible with the level of exertion required to haul multiple loads of cumbersome items in such a short period of time. As prosecutors gathered evidence looking to charge Compton with a crime, they had a novel idea; not only did the mere existence of Compton’s pacemaker call into doubt the validity of his story, but the device itself might contain data that would be useful in confirming their suspicions.

Using data from smart devices in an investigation is not without precedent. As devices have become more sophisticated, their usage has become more widespread, and the types of data that they record has become more diverse. It stands to follow that investigators are increasingly seeking to use this information to solve crimes. As far back as 2004, EZpass toll data was used to convict a New Jersey nurse of murdering her husband and tossing his cut-up remains into the Chesapeake Bay. In 2017, a New Hampshire judge ordered Amazon to hand over recordings from an Amazon Echo smart speaker in a double homicide case. That data told police who was in the room at the time of the murders and ultimately helped convict a man of the crime. In 2018, a San Jose, California man was charged with murdering his stepdaughter after police collected data from the victim’s Fitbit that showed the victim’s heart rate spiking and then rapidly declining, indicating that both the attack and her ensuing death occurred at a time when the accused man was known to be at her residence.

As fruitful as using device data has proven to be in some investigations, it has been problematic in others. This year, a 30-year-old restaurant worker in Florida who used an app to track his bike rides was falsely implicated in a burglary when investigators requested GPS location data from Google. The investigators mistakenly identified the man’s rides to and from work, passing by the house where the burglary occurred, as evidence of his involvement in the crime.

While using data from electronic devices to assist in investigations was a commonplace practice for law enforcement before Ross Compton’s 2016 fire, a warrant requesting data from an implanted medical device had never been issued. Even as the embers of his former abode still smoldered, the first such search warrant was obtained by detectives in Ohio to retrieve the data from Compton’s pacemaker. At a nearby hospital, data about his cardiac activity was extracted and seized by law enforcement. Upon analysis of the data, a cardiologist concluded that Compton’s version of events was “highly improbable.” It just didn’t show the rising levels of cardiac activity one would expect to see had events unfolded in the chaotic way Compton described to investigators. Compton was arrested on charges of arson and insurance fraud. He pleaded not guilty.

The use of data from smart devices and apps to solve crimes is no doubt effective, but it does have some worrisome implications if used improperly by overzealous investigators. With most devices, the fact that your data could be used to assist law enforcement is spelled out in a terms-of-service agreement you might not have read but consented to all the same. If you feel your invasion of privacy threshold is ever crossed, you can always remove the EZpass, power down your smart speaker, and leave the fitness watch at home. People with implanted medical devices don’t have that option. For Compton, the pacemaker that saved his life also condemned him. The 12th District Court of Appeals was set to weigh in this year on the constitutionality of using pacemaker data in Compton’s case, which would have had broad ramifications for similar investigations in the future. However, Ross Compton passed away this summer, so, for now, the answers to those questions remain up in the air.

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