The 32-year-old is locked in a nightmare dispute with insurer AAMI, which rejected his claim on the basis of what he says is a flawed analysis of photographs he provided as evidence of ownership of the stolen items, costing him close to $187,000.
And experts say a common glitch in time and date stamps on images stored by online cloud services could put other claims at risk, with metadata left exposed to accidental or intentional corruption.
Mr Dowsett has spent the past nine months fruitlessly trying to have a $51,000 claim on his home and contents insurance settled, finally lodging a complaint to the Financial Services Ombudsman.
It all started on April 28, when he and his partner returned to their rented home in the Perth suburb of Rivervale to find it stripped of valuables, with his remaining possessions strewn all over the place and a sliding door damaged after being jimmied open.
“Each room downstairs had been ransacked, the television, sound system and DVDs were missing from the loungeroom and the door of my safe was wide open and emptied of its contents,” he said.
Also among the missing items were a drone, two designer and smartphone watches and cash from a recent motor vehicle sale, the latter not covered by the insurance policy.
When AAMI raised questions about the time stamps on photographs taken from his Google Photos cloud platform, Mr Dowsett explained that they appeared to be showing the dates when he uploaded them, between May 20 and 23.
He said other photos showing these dates had in fact been taken during his March hospital stay, and provided evidence of this to AAMI.
Telstra confirmed the Galaxy Note 5 was not in Mr Dowsett’s possession. Source: Supplied
Crucially, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 used to take the photographs — a fact confirmed by AAMI’s forensic analysis — was not in his possession at the time AAMI alleges they were taken.
News.com.au has seen a copy of a letter from Telstra confirming that Mr Dowsett had traded in the Samsung Note 5 on March 3, replacing it with a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.
After retrieving the original images through a Samsung switch backup restore, Mr Dowsett said, he examined them using a Jeffrey’s Image Exif Viewer, a free online tool for analysing metadata embedded within images such as time, date, camera or device used and location.
The results, he said, showed that the photographs of his Samsung and Gucci watches had been taken on February 24, while that of his Cannon EOS digital camera had been taken on February 28.
But AAMI refused to acknowledge this when he provided them with this evidence, he said.
On October 20, the insurer officially rejected his claim, alleging that it had been made fraudulently, while cancelling his policy.
THE PERILS OF DIGITAL EVIDENCE
According to Matthew Warren, deputy director of Deakin University’s Centre for Cyber Research, digital time stamps are notoriously unreliable.
“The problem is, any data can easily be manipulated,” Mr Warren told news.com.au. “Time stamping is a key aspect of digital forensics, but it can be corrupted and altered. It’s such a grey area, and it’s going to become more of an issue as we move more into digital evidence.”
Metadata on images could be altered both on purpose or by accident, such as when resizing files or forwarding them by email or Facebook.
“It’s actually a problem of using cloud services because you don’t know who has access to your data on the cloud,” he said. “It’s something that insurance companies are very concerned about.”
Unfortunately for people like Mr Dowsett, he said, “there’s not a lot you can do if the insurance company doesn’t trust the evidence”.
“When someone takes a picture and uses it as evidence, a lot of that’s based on trust,” he said.
“If an insurance company thinks that manipulation has occurred, they simply won’t pay the claim.”
But if the master copy was provided with raw, unedited data, that would give a claimant the best possible chance.
‘NO SATISFACTORY EXPLANATION’
AAMI declined to comment on Mr Dowsett’s dispute, citing privacy restrictions.
In its letter rejecting his claim, the insurer claimed that he had failed to attend appointments, which Mr Dowsett disputes.
“Our investigations indicate that you have deliberately provided false and misleading statements regarding the circumstances of the claim,” the letter said.
“You have not been able to supply a satisfactory explanation for why the images supplied were taken after the event, in the absence of evidence to the contrary we conclude that these items were not stolen as claimed.”
Mr Dowsett has taken the dispute to the Ombudsman, seeking a reversal of the insurer’s decision, plus compensation.