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What can Idaho victims’ tech tell police about the killer?

(NewsNation) — As technology advances, digital forensics is often used in criminal investigations, and it may be crucial in solving the quadruple homicide of four University of Idaho students who were killed in their home on Nov. 13.

Police have not yet said whether they’ve gathered any information from inside the victim’s cellphones, but authorities have been seen in photos removing laptops and computers from the victims’ home.

At least one of the victims, Kaylee Goncalves, had a smartwatch, according to images posted on her social media accounts.

Police have not yet said if the students had a virtual assistant in the home, like an Amazon Alexa or Google Home. All of these devices are constantly listening and recording everything that goes on in the spaces they’re in. Often, what is heard is actually recorded, and there’s a file that can exist in the cloud of everything you said, even if you don’t know it.

So, what might they reveal about the killings that happened in that house? Or the killer who went through that house? What could this tell the police?

Jake Green, the digital forensics technical lead for Envista Forensics, said wearable smart devices, like an Apple Watch, Google Pixel or Fitbit, can operate without a cellphone or they can be tethered to another device, like a cellphone.

“Those watches can be used for communications, listening to music, viewing photos and even health applications that can track heartbeat, resting heart rates, and really show us even a potential time of death when the heart stopped being detected,” said Green, who’s assisted over 20 law enforcement agents with more than 1,300 cases.

Green also noted that if the smartwatch is tethered to a phone, it may have notifications on it that reveal when these emergencies happen.

However, the device must be worn at the moment to detect activity like a decrease in heart rate, and many people often take theirs off at night to charge while they’re sleeping. It’s not yet known if Goncalves was wearing her smartwatch during the time of the incident.

The four students had their hands bagged at the murder scene to preserve possible DNA evidence, Fox News reported.

Forensic expert Joseph Scott Morgan told NewsNation that it’s common for perpetrators to unknowingly leave behind hair strands on the victims’ hands. The killer’s skin cells can also become embedded under the nails of their victim.

Green said in his experience with law enforcement, a watch, regardless of whether it’s a smartwatch or regular time-keeping watch would be left on a victim so that they can review them for any evidence.

“Those pieces would be reviewed, not in a crime scene, but when we get back to the morgue, and actually run through an autopsy,” Green explained. “We’re going to document the clothing, we’re going to document those watches. And then at that point with proper lighting, and we can see exactly what’s going on, we may try to transfer that watch, to take it to a lab to be able to pull that for the forensics data off of it.”

While officials are often able to preserve digital evidence, timing can be very delicate. For example, if a device is taken from its source of WiFi or its connectivity, some data could be lost.

“If we don’t properly preserve evidence, we can lose everything. Especially with cellphones. If that phone is in what’s called a after-first unlock state we have a much higher likelihood of getting into that device than if it is to power itself down because of loss of battery,” Green explained.

He continued, “So being timely in our efforts to recover evidence, especially in cases that we do have a deceased person, we don’t know the possible PIN for the phone. In the past, we’ve used the decedent’s fingerprints to unlock a device. So those are all things that could have happened here; even the facial unlocks.”

Police have recovered 113 pieces of physical evidence from the house. The evidence is being processed at the Idaho State Crime Lab. Investigators have also taken approximately 4,000 crime scene photographs.