Twenty-five-year-old Sydney Sutherland was out jogging in Newport on Aug. 19 when she went missing. Tragically, her body was found buried near her home two days later. Within hours of finding her body, local authorities made an arrest in the case.
In abductions and disappearances, hours or even minutes make the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, in Ms. Sutherland’s case, the crime had occurred before anyone even knew she was missing. But how did authorities make an arrest so quickly? The answer is excellent police work combined with analysis of commercially available data, including cell-phone data.
Most Americans are walking around with devices that log every keystroke, email, text, and call. Their smartphones, watches, and cars are filled with apps that gather their data. Some of those apps, like those from Apple, Google, or Microsoft, are pre-installed when you purchase a device. Others, like social media, shopping, rideshare, or banking apps, might be installed by the user. Many people even have “smart speakers” and digital assistants in their homes, listening to what they say.
All of these devices and apps are gathering some combination of your interests, the things you say, the places you go, and the people with whom you communicate. That information is then made available for a fee to other companies and advertisers, which use the gathered information to put in front of the consumer exactly the things they are most likely to purchase, like, or share.
The mass collection of user data by private companies has well-known and troubling implications for our privacy. Over the last few years, the public has become more concerned about how their data is being collected, shared, and monetized. There’s ongoing discussion–and there should be–about how this impacts society, and whether people really understand what they’re agreeing to in exchange for the convenience of modern smart devices.
In a few horrifying examples, individuals with bad intentions have gained access to insecure devices and used them to harass and spy on families and children inside their own home. In other cases, companies have abused their customers’ trust by collecting data without their approval or selling data to unscrupulous third parties, even bounty hunters. These abuses show the need for stronger privacy protections and limitations on how corporations and other private parties can use our information.
But commercially available, non-personally identifiable data can also be used by law enforcement for good. Ms. Sutherland’s case is an example of how much of the very same data sold and purchased by big companies every day to get you to buy their products can also be used to investigate crimes and bring heinous criminals to justice. While it was too late to prevent Sydney Sutherland’s murder, the use of this data at least means that authorities can bring her alleged killer to justice.
In a growing roster of cases, the analysis of commercially available data has helped rescue victims, especially victims of child abduction and sex trafficking, in at least 29 states across the country. It also has led to numerous arrests and convictions.
Shockingly, there are some who think that law enforcement should be barred from using this data to solve crimes or rescue victims, and who seek to curb their ability to use the same information that virtually any private company can purchase or rent. There also have been attempts to target contractors that analyze this data and work with law enforcement or with immigration authorities to stop traffickers, national-security threats, and transnational criminal organizations like drug cartels.
Make no mistake: Trying to prevent law enforcement from using commercially available data analysis to solve crimes is just like saying that law enforcement shouldn’t be able to use commercially available firearms because they’re dangerous.
I share concerns about Big Tech abusing our privacy and using data without permission of Americans. But the solution to this is not to limit law enforcement from doing its job. We should be grateful for the brave police officers who have acted to bring Ms. Sutherland’s alleged killer to justice and for the thousands of other officers who work hard to keep us safe.
Tom Cotton is the junior U.S. senator for the state of Arkansas.