Serial: A 15-Year Journey Back in Tech Time

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Serial recently became the most popular podcast of all time. For those unfamiliar, the podcast details a true story of a murder committed in 1999, nearly 15 years ago. The convicted (wrongfully, some would argue) perpetrator has been in jail ever since. Of the many interesting things about this case, the role of technology stands out. The trial was one of the first to make use of cell phone records—a major part of the prosecution’s argument.

When I think back to 15 years ago, life was a little different—I was younger, cell phones were bigger, the Internet was just starting to be a thing, and the world was pretty worried about Y2K.

As I learned through this podcast, solving crimes was pretty different, too. In 1999, there was a lot less technology to depend on. Without the benefit of the many different trails and records that modern technology leaves, finding information depended much more on human beings. Herein lies the problem for the convict in Serial. He and everyone else in his life can’t remember exactly where or when they saw him that Wednesday in December 1999.

Try to remember what you were doing on October 23rd of this year. Could you tell me everything you did, everything you ate, and every person you spoke to? Probably not. You may have a better chance at recalling these details if you check your emails, texts, call log, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

The crime supposedly took place in a Best Buy parking lot in Baltimore, Maryland, but the only thing placing the suspect at the scene of the crime was a single witness and a cell phone tower that covered much more than a parking lot. With today’s technology, your best alibi might be in your pocket. All day your phone is communicating with servers, cell phone towers, and Wi-Fi signals. Tomorrow’s murder suspect could be acquitted because of a well-timed selfie placing them away from the scene of the crime.

Whether we like it or not, technology records a whole lot about our lives. This seemingly benign information can assist in solving crimes in a way we never thought possible 15 years ago. What will the next 15 years bring? Police work paired with predictive crime programs? Analytics or event processing software signaling suspicious movement and communications?

It all begs the question about when, where, and how we want Big Brother in our lives, even if it helps create a safe and crime-free community. How do we balance the value of information and justice with the value of our privacy? Comment below and let us know what you think.

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