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The mystery on new podcast Serial would be much less mysterious with smartphones

Highschoolers have more ways to communicate than ever.
Highschoolers have more ways to communicate than ever.
(KritKritina Lee Knief/Moment Mobile/Getty)

The first few episodes of Serial, a new spinoff podcast from the creators of the beloved radio broadcast This American Life, hooks fans with the same aesthetic and poise that make its predecessor a cultural mainstay. But while Ira Glass and the team on This American Life tell new stories with different themes each week, Serial is dedicated to unravelling a single, overarching plot over the course of many episodes. It feels more akin to the high production value dramas now popular on cable television than an NPR broadcast, especially since the first story investigates the suspicious murder of a Maryland teenager.

Sarah Koenig, the show's host and former producer of This American Life, first learned about the case more than a year ago. Before taping began, her research suggested that the true story of this murder was more complicated than the version presented at trial. Unsatisfied with the official account, Koenig guides listeners through a set of interviews, phone calls, and new evidence uncovered in her quest to shed light on a real life murder mystery.

The central question she's trying to answer is pretty simple: where was Adnan Syed, the man convicted of Hae Min Lee's murder, for the 21 minutes after school when the crime occurred? Koenig wrestles with conflicting police reports, inconsistent stories from people claiming to have seen Adnan in that time, and some awfully technical yet inconclusive phone records. For now (we're up to episode six as of this writing) that's all we have to work with as we follow the week-to-week investigations.


The staff of Serial. (Meredith Heuer)

While the presentation of Serial is modern — this is also a podcast, not a public radio show — the murder occurred in 1999, so the setting pulls us back in time almost 15 years. But what if this whole plot unfolded in 2014? It turns out a whole lot can change in 15 years, especially with technology. In fact, it's easy to imagine a dramatically different trial, not to mention a totally different episodic crime podcast.


Far more high schoolers now own cell phones

According to a Pew study in 2013, 78 percent of teens 12-17 owned a cell phone of their own. Almost half of them owned smart phones.

In the case followed in Serial, we're told Adnan had recently purchased a cell phone to facilitate the murder. The call logs Koenig combs over involve that cell phone, land lines, pagers, and even possibly a pay phone. The logs show 34 calls made to and from Adnan's phone the day of the murder. Many of them happen during a long stretch of time Adnan is sharing the phone with someone else. Imagine how many more calls could or would have been made if most of the students at Adnan and Hae's school had cell phones of their own. And it wouldn't even be just calls just to Adnan that would be informative, but also calls between friends on the periphery of the case, too.

No one makes phone calls anymore

But forget the phone calls. Who makes phone calls anymore? In 2014, all of the coordinating that happened would have probably happened via text message. Another Pew study found that 63 percent of teens text every day, with the median texting teen sending 60 messages every day. Each individual text would be timestamped, and conversations would happen over several minutes or even hours, providing a clearer timeline. The content of the actual exchanges would be available, too, removing most doubt about what each conversation was about.

Every phone has a camera

Okay, but forget texts, too. Imagine the photos that could have been taken in the halls after class, at the library, at practice — anywhere that afternoon. It's pretty hard to argue with photos (which all have their own meta data). Just one snap of Adnan at track practice, at the library, or anywhere he said he was during those 21 minutes, and this whole thing could be settled. Maybe.

Apps and location services

Photos are great, but even better are publicly shared, GPS-tagged posts of those photos on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But almost every social interaction could log a location that would be far more accurate and reliable than cell tower pings (the source of much doubt in the fifth episode). And according to Pew, 81 percent of teens are using at least one social network.

Koenig says early in the first episode, "This search sometimes feels undignified on my part, I've had to ask about teenagers' sex lives, notes they passed in class, their drug habits, their relationships with their parents." But how much of that can they possibly remember in any detail or with any accuracy? I can remember all the awful band T-shirts I wore in high school and what I was doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but give me a fairly random date and ask me what I was doing at a specific time that day? Forget it.

That's true of trying to remember events from just a few years ago, too. But all the apps, photos, and social networks used by high schoolers these days make it easier than ever to retrace their steps. They can scroll back through their text logs and photo galleries on their phones, or search through their Facebook feeds. And now with Throwback Thursday and apps like Timehop, nostalgia for those kinds of details is even trendy.

While there are so many more ways that teenagers can communicate — and be tracked — with their smartphones, it doesn't necessarily mean that this investigation would be easier in 2014. All this new data comes with new complications. Texts and photos can be deleted by both sender and recipient. While call and SMS records can be obtained by warrant, more and more communicating by teens is done over not just social networks, but services like iMessage, Snapchat and WhatsApp. And most of the useful information from those exchanges is held closely by a variety of tech companies who are increasingly resistant to sharing anything with law enforcement agencies, much less reporters — especially after the semi-recent NSA domestic spying scandals.

It's hard to say how much of this information law enforcement or Koenig could get their hands on. Privacy laws are still catching up with the pace of technology (Koenig tells us that Adnan's case was the first to ever present cell tower pings as evidence in Maryland court, even). And even if the legal side were straightforward, there's no guarantee that all the additional ways Adnan could have been tracked in 2014 would have produced any new, useful evidence. All it guarantees is there would be a lot more technical fodder for the hit podcast to untangle.

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