Amazon

Alexa. Please Don't Answer Police Questions Without a Warrant

Amazon refusing to turn over Echo digital assistant voice recordings in murder investigation.

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EchoAmazon
Amazon

The police in Bentonville, Arkansas have asked Amazon to give them access to any voice recordings that its Echo digital assistant may have made at the time that an alleged murder was committed, reports The Information. According to court documents James Andrew Bates is charged with killing Victor Collins on November 22, 2015 after Collins was found dead in Bates' hot tub.

Echo operates by always listening for "hot words" that signal it to send a request to the cloud services offered by Amazon and various third parties. For example, owners might ask Echo through Amazon's voice recognition program Alexa for a weather report or to play Mozart. The device retains fewer than 60 seconds of recorded sound in its storage buffer.

Amazon records all requests with the idea that Alexa will learn better over time how to respond to specfic customers' queries and orders. However, Echo does not record every word that people say in their homes. In other words, always listening is not the same as always recording. So in this specific case, unless someone asked Alexa how to clean up blood stains or the best techniques for garroting a person, the voice recordings from this device are unlikely to be of much help to the police. On the other hand, a smart water meter does apparently show that 140 gallons were used between 1 and 3 am on the night of the alleged murder; perhaps to wash away blood?

Still, Echo might be able to place specific people in the house by noting who requested say a playlist and at what time requests were made. This is not unlike cell phone location information which police regularly request from mobile phone companies. So far, two federal courts have ruled that the police do not have to have warrants to obtain your cell phone location information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital privacy groups are contesting these rulings on Fourth Amendment grounds in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Amazon is resisting the Bentonville police request. In a statement to Engadget the company said: "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

Since The Information reports that the Bentonville police have secured a warrant seeking the voice recordings from Bates' device for November 21 and 22, 2015, it is not clear on what grounds Amazon is refusing to turn over the requested recordings. Go here to learn how to delete Echo voice recordings.

We are now all surrounded by microphones and video cameras in our laptops, tablets, smart televisions, and cell phones, all of which can be potentially hacked by criminals, government spies, and the police. As the Internet of Things expands, the possibilties for how our devices might be used against us greatly expand. Encryption can help, but keeping closer watch on the watchers will be vital.

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121 responses to “Alexa. Please Don't Answer Police Questions Without a Warrant

  1. I think anyone who puts an always-on internet-connected microphone or camera in their house is, well, making a mistake.

    As I remarked to Mrs Dean before Christmas when they were flogging this gizmo – “no frickin’ way would I have that in my house”. She doesn’t share my level of paranoia about Big Data and Big Jackboot, so I was pleased to hear her outrage when she saw the news that the po-po were trying to get the recordings from Amazon.

    1. “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about,” said nobody about their own browser history, ever.

      1. everybody has SOMETHING to hide.

    2. Tin foil experiment:
      In the room where your computer is, say “I want to fuck some hot asian chicks” and then click on facebook or any other social media and look at the advertisements.
      *doffs tin foil cap

      1. This would require A: going to a social media site and B: disabling ad block. These are two things I am disinclined to do individually, and refuse to do together.

        1. I have ad block but that doesn’t stop the ads from showing up in my news feed because they are just a post on the news feed placed there by facebook. It’s creepy what shows up after I offhandedly mention something in the same room as my computer.

    3. I have sat more less naked many a time in front of the ole Xbox Kinect; with full knowledge that some intelligence grunt was getting an eyeful through the always running camera and mic.

      1. I don’t have Kinect because if they saw me naked they would go blind.

        1. . . . if they saw me naked they would go blind.

          You say “bug,” I say “feature” . . .

    4. And it is always on, right?

      It has to be on to listen for you command to activate.

      People are so fucking lazy. I have a poker buddy, I swear, if it wasn’t for the remote control, he’d be stuck on the couch watching whatever came on for hours.

      He’s a lazy bastard, and he’s a fat ass glutton. We were in Vegas at a buffet, and you could just see the smoke coming out of his ears because of the conundrum–what do you do when you want to stuff your fat face with food but you’re too lazy to stand up and walk across the room to get it?

      Lardass: “Hey, while you’re up, could you grab me some . . ? ”

      Shultz: “NO, you fat fuck!

    5. “I think anyone who puts an always-on internet-connected microphone or camera in their house is, well, making a mistake.”

      I envy your ability to live with no cell phone.

      1. Mine is off most of the time.

      2. Or get the old style flip phone and no data plan.

    6. I have one. I use it for music, alarm clock and listening to sports talk sometimes. Mine is first generation so has it gets older (or dustier) it has problems understanding. I don’t see how it will help the police. You have to say “Alexa” to wake it up.
      You can’t just say play music.

      Now excuse me – Alexa, play liberals crying about Hillary

  2. Every time an ad for one of these things appears, Libertarian Wife yells at the TV, “Not in MY house!”

    1. Heh, I see RC had the same thought. I wonder if that’s my wife’s handle.

      1. I’m not (((saying))). 😉

      2. These euphemisms.

    2. And the TV notes every time she yells that, too.

      1. When I asked her point blank if she was RC, she looked away and quickly changed the subject.

        She insists, wisely, on only having dumb TVs. Old ones.

        1. I have two TVs that are new enough to be flat panel, but old enough not to have embedded cameras. I am not sure what I am going to do when they eventually give up the ghost.

          1. Electrical tape…

            Wait, normal TVs have cameras now?

            1. Some do. The ones that bill themselves as “smart” and let you control the TV with hand gestures. Samsung is the first one to get hacked.

              Word is that manufacturers want to embed camera(s) behind the screen so they are inconspicuous, but that means you can’t cover them up with tape anymore. They already have the technology to tell how many adults are watching and what part of the screen they are watching (“Hmm. The woman’s eyes are on the cake, and the man’s eyes are on the model’s boobs.”), but to my knowledge it has not been sold commercially yet.

      1. You’re coining a new term? I like to think history will see much of the investigative and forensic efforts of our times as just as ludicrous as today we see the idea that the human eye stores for retrieval the last image it sees before death.

        1. +1 The Eyes Have It (Lord Darcy mystery)

        2. +1 some Dr Who repeat I watched last week

        3. +1 Will Smith movie

  3. criminals, government spies, and the police

    Unnecessarily redundant duplication of terms noted.

  4. This genius commits a murder with one of these things around?

  5. in the future, all murder investigations will be made by perusing people’s selfie-history.

    1. “You see, GILMORE did not take any selfies between seven and nine – the exact time these murders took place. Clearly he had something to hide, and that something was this barbaric slaughter!”

    2. emoji analysis

      1. Good God.

        Every young lady I’ve met in the last five years belongs to this band. What are the odds?

  6. Well, it may be more than a decade after they started rolling out, and more than seven years since showering them with nothing but praise, but this libertarian magazine has finally gotten around to glancing–very, very softly and obliquely–upon the serious privacy issues raised by smart meters. The government won’t even need to ask to access those; they’re owned and installed by regulated monopolies or governments themselves. As with so many things, the only thing standing between them and constant, effective surveillance of you, even absent any suspicion on their part, is technological limitations in processing the data.

    1. I worry less about the smart meter being monitored than about it being used to control how much electricity (and gas?) I can actually use. I already get the monthly shame notices saying “you’re using more electricity than your ‘efficient neighbors'” (with no definition of ‘efficient neighbor’). That doesn’t bother me so much; it’s just a waste of paper/email, although I find it hard to trust a company that tells me to use less of its product. What concerns me is if/when they decide to say “your electricity ration is 100 kWh for this month, use it wisely, comrade”.

      1. I knew those “efficient neighbor” claims were bullshit when they asserted I was near the worst in the area despite using almost nothing for that billing cycle.

        (Actually that merely confirmed what I was suspecting)

        1. Though I have a theory.

          The only way a billing unit around me would be using as little power as they claimed is if it were vacant and merely been set to “don’t let the pipes freeze” temperatures. So the power company is using the data including vacant properties to labast people who have to actually live in the places where power is being used.

        2. Note that, despite the rollout of smart meters, your utility may not actually use actual readings every billing cycle. They may be allowed, depending on your utility regulator, to bill you based on “estimated usage”. So you may have been billed based on either your usage for the same time period in the past, or the average usage of your neighbors, or perhaps some combination of both.

          But nonetheless, you are correct that the “efficient neighbor” metric is bullshit.

          1. In my case, I’ve been checking and it’s been “actual reading” listed on the bills. I’m going to presume for the time being that this is an actionable claim if it were to turn out to have been estimated and marked as actual.

          2. Our utility (BC Hydro) only bills six times a year. And yeah, they do use smart meters ? I can check our daily usage online. They metaphorically shat their pants last year when our electricity usage suddenly spiked after I ripped out a really crappy gas range and replaced it with an electric one.

            They had the same response when we installed a whole-house A/C and then a hot spell hit.

            Well, of course my electricity usage went up compared to last year, dumbasses.

            ‘Course, the real reason they want us to conserve power is because they’ve done an absolutely incompetent job of maintaining and upgrading the electrical grid throughout The Lower Rainland?, leaving them no option but to try to shame/cajole us into using less power to take the strain off the grid.

            1. National Grid (nee Niagara Mohawk) bills monthly. I don’t think I can check usage on their site. I don’t go there more than once a month.

              OT, they do have an architecturally significant New York Headquarters

              1. That is some quality Art Deco right there.

              2. Whoa. If that place doesn’t double as the headquarters for at least one team of superheroes, somebody has to be joking.

            2. Course, the real reason they want us to conserve power is because they’ve done an absolutely incompetent job of maintaining and upgrading the electrical grid

              I don’t know about your utility specifically, but from what I’ve seen, the utilities are forced by governments/regulators to spend a certain portion of their limited revenue on subsidizing people who won’t pay their bills and on whatever bullshit “green” initiatives the legislators/bureaucrats have most recently dreamed up. Not to mention that some important maintenance steps, like cutting down the fucking trees around the power lines, are now forbidden.

              1. Not to mention that some important maintenance steps, like cutting down the fucking trees around the power lines, are now forbidden.

                So much this. Between downed trees over power lines during Pacific wind/rainstorms, and birds frying themselves in substations and tripping the station’s breakers (spectacular, BTW!), we’re probably talking 90% of the outages. The greenies, of course, don’t care. Explains why generator sales in these parts are so robust.

      2. What’s worse is them saying, “Your electricity use is 20% higher than your neighbors. That’s probable cause for a search warrant to kick your door in and shoot your dog while looking for a grow operation.” I have an electronics lab in my basement and a rather elaborate stereo, so I make sure my cop neighbor gets to walk through now and then. For social purposes, of course.

        1. I hadn’t thought of that angle, but good point. Moreover, drugs would just be the tip of the iceberg. Think of what the eco-Nazis could do with that information. Your use of “inefficient” devices and electronics will be punished, peon.

          1. It is reported that among the “cavalcade of little annoyances” that added up to Brexit was the EU banning of normal power vacuum cleaners and electric kettles in the name of the environment.

            1. They forgot one of the primary rules in dealing with the British…. do NOT fuck with their electric kettles.

              1. What about their acoustic kettles?

                1. I’m familiar with acoustic refrigeration, but heating? That’s gonna take some power. How hard you think you’d need to vibrate water to cause enough friction…..nah, not worth figuring out when we have heating elements and gas available.

      3. The irony of them sending a paper note to tell you that you’re not being efficient in your energy usage is noted.

        I have zero doubts that no one is the ‘efficient neighbor’, but it’s rather a generic attempt to shame. I monstrously doubt they would care to publicize even a hint of what other people are using, much less have the technological know-how to make any kind of true comparison.

        The true irony here is that the government has caused an industry to actively petition you to use less of their paid services. Go figure.

        1. I’m pretty sure the fixed rate “service charges” are more than enough to sustain my power company, and the marginal profit per kilowatthour is small enough to make the gesture less costly than it might appear (especially since they know it won’t be acted upon)

        2. I have repeatedly indicated on their website that I would prefer to receive notices only by email (there was no way to opt out). The only result that I have observed is that I now receive both paper notices and emails.

          1. Huh. I get $0.40 off my bill for having paperless billing.

  7. I don’t get why people are subjecting themselves to this.

    The reason the government didn’t track our phone calls and email in the past was because it was prohibitively expensive and technologically impossible to do so. Once it became both cost efficient and technologically possible, the government started tracking all our calls and emails.

    The Constitution says whatever some judge says it says. It isn’t really an impediment to government abuse of our rights so much as it shapes the rationalization for abusing our rights. (It also informs public intolerance for abuse–the Constitution’s real power.)

    The government will eventually do everything it can justify doing for our protection, and there is very little that can’t be justified that way. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

    In a better world, Qubes, Tor browsers, and Whonix would be hotter than Alexa, Cortana, and Siri. Alexa, Cortana, and Siri are a bunch of two-faced whores. They can all kiss my ass and go die in a fiery autonomous vehicle crash. I’ll trade a little something for convenience, but not that much.

  8. More shitty reporting from Reason…

    Warrant is 04CR-16-370

    Access via caseinfo.aoc.arkansas.gov

    Use Bates’ name

    Search Warant dated 08/26/16 and 4/18/16

    bit.ly/echowarrant1

    1. More shitty reading from Dunphy

      Since The Information reports that the Bentonville police have secured a warrant seeking the voice recordings from Bates’ device for November 21 and 22, 2015, it is not clear on what grounds Amazon is refusing to turn over the requested recordings.

      1. My reading is fine

        There investigative reporting lacks investigation

        Where’s the links to the WARRANT??

        Why do I have to provide them?

        1. Feel free to set up your own site – I am sure it would be HEAVILY TRAFFICKED.

          hth

          smooches

  9. “Alexa, do we have any more coarse tooth hacksaw blades? What about a roll of plastic sheeting?”

    1. Alexa, how deep is a “shallow grave”?

    2. Alexa, what’s the water like, say, 2 miles off the shore of Miami?

    3. “Not like this.

      We need a hang glider and a crotchless Uncle Sam costume, and I want the entire field of your largest stadium covered end to end with naked redheads, and I want the stands packed with every man that remotely resembles my father.”

      “I’m not looking for judgment, just a yes or a no. Can you assimilate a giraffe?”

      1. We just need Agile Cyborg to talk to Alexa for a few minutes to bring the entire system down.

      2. Wubble dubble dub dub

  10. warrant/affidavit here

    http://tinyurl.com/jtsqonz

    1. Since The Information reports that the Bentonville police have secured a warrant seeking the voice recordings from Bates’ device for November 21 and 22, 2015, it is not clear on what grounds Amazon is refusing to turn over the requested recordings. Go here to learn how to delete Echo voice recordings.

      RTFA

      1. Look, Dunphy can’t read.

        1. I can read fine

          But I know how to access source documents

          Maybe Reason can learn that nifty trick

          Tinyurl.com/jtsqonz

            1. Yawn

              Reason can parrot what others say or actually RTFwarrant themselves

              And do some analysis

              1. Tripped over your shoe laces then stepped on a rake. That is quality comedy Dunphy. Thank you.

    2. takD: The warrant you link to appears to be for the Echo device, not the recording retained in Amazon’s cloud.

      UCS: Thank you.

      1. Well, that was easy.

        A warrant for the device owned by the suspect is not a warrant for recordings held by a third party.

  11. takD: Grrrr. “recordings”

    1. Another poor soul bitten by the lack of an “edit” button.

      1. He joins us in our suffering….

        1. I thought Bailey had his ability to feel annoyance removed when they gave him all those robot arms?

          1. So Bailey is really… Dr. Octopus?

  12. On the one hand, sure, agree with the Big Brother critique and whatnot. On the other hand, what if Alexa actually was a person, and you called her on the phone and asked for advice about something? I mean, until they get a subpoena, it’s her call whether to cooperate with the police about the nature of that conversation, but she’s not your spouse or lawyer; it isn’t privileged. Do we also object to the use of subpoenas to compel people to offer testimony that may provide key evidence in a murder case? If so, is the double standard just squeamishness about computers versus people?

    1. Does this person routinely record every conversation?

      Also, there’s a difference between dealing with a nonsentient machine percieved as existing solely within your home (despite the way the object really works) and with calling a human being who has their own volition. People will say things to computers that they won’t dare say to a human being.

      1. “Does this person routinely record every conversation?”

        Well enough that they can testify about it, yes. Honestly, the situation with a human is worse, because while memory is technically less perfect than a recording, juries don’t tend to discount it on that basis. It’s probably easier to get a human to remember a conversation as more damning than it was.

    2. We don’t object to valid subpoenas or warrants on principle. The issue here is Amazon isn’t willing to cough up these recordings without a warrant, and hasn’t, apparently, gotten one yet.

      The bigger question is, why does Amazon retain these recordings at all?

      1. There is a valid business reason for having them – improving reliability of responses. You’re going to have to check the machine against a human to see if it is interpreting correctly, and to see if the customers are inordinately swearing at it. So at least a random sampling of requests should be kept for comparison and improvement of the product.

        Also, it helps if the customer complains about an issue to be able to refer back to what they actually asked the machine to do.

        1. Most of what you talk about is what happens after saying “Alexa!” But the device sends everything it hears to Amazon, who records it.

          1. the device sends everything it hears to Amazon, who records it.

            Where do you see that? This article says the opposite. I’m going to need a citation.

      2. The bigger question is, why does Amazon retain these recordings at all?

        Training the models. You can’t make better speech recognition if you don’t have any speech. That having been said, a random sampling of recordings would suffice. Unless the user specifically reports a problem or Amazon has been served with an NSL, they don’t need to keep every recording.

        1. k & UCS: While Amazon does not have a specifically stated policy, the company reportedly (hmm, I wonder if takD can find this?), keeps Alexa voice recordings for around 6 months before deleting them.

          1. No doubt, it is easier/cheaper to keep everything and then filter it out later. But once you have data stored somewhere, it can be subpoenaed.

          2. Six months? Way too long. I know of any number of businesses that force-purge email older than 90 days, precisely so it can’t be subpoenaed.

            1. For a while*, including New York State

              (*until the e-mails incriminating Andy had been ‘deleted by policy’)

        2. But Amazon can do that with all the things said after prompting the device with “Alexa!” It does not need to record anything except those requests or commands.

          1. But Amazon can do that with all the things said after prompting the device with “Alexa!”

            Not if they want to improve the ability to recognize the prompt word itself. If people report a problem with the device recognizing “Alexa!” then they have to have audio from before you said “Alexa!”.

            But, again, with all the caveats I already listed.

          2. Amazon records a bunch of stuff. Not every click but every event. All calls are fully recorded why wouldn’t Devices like this?

  13. Almost a decade or so ago LE in NY got GM to turn on the OnStar device in a mafia suspect’s car. The car owner and his passenger were later convicted on RICO charges (IIRC) after the jury listened to recordings taken by LEafter turning on the OnStar.

    1. That seems like a short-sighted tactic. Get a couple of mafiosi, but the rest just have their chop shops tear out OnStar.

      1. Look, it got that agent a good performance review for the year. Isn’t that worth it?

      2. Just never buy GM.

  14. Whilst looking here in The Lower Rainland? for permanent single-family lodging last year, we happened upon a completely-reno’ed house that was a so-called “Smart Home.” It was eerie ? every time we’d enter or exit a room, lights would dim or brighten, sound systems would turn the volume up or down, the kitchen would “prep” itself for dinner, etc. Every room had a touch screen embedded in the wall where you’d expect a simple light switch.

    My wife and I exchanged meaningful glances, as in “Internet of Things? Yeah, no thanks.” Not only was this thing constantly monitoring our every movement, its security system was in always-paranoid mode and could actually call the police without human intervention.

    In a stupidly-hot real estate market where the average house was going for between 50 and 150 grand over asking, they were asking $709,000 for the place and that’s exactly what they got; seems no-one wanted to pay extra for a house that was constantly surveilling you. (It also raised the question of just how “dumb” would the house get when the power failed here, a frequent occurrence because we’re in a semi-rural environment; we knew nothing about whether the house would “fail-safe,” and neither did the listing agent).

    1. I’d start by saying “I’d have to subtract from my bid the amount to remove this useless ‘automation’ crap that reduces the utility of the house”.

      1. I did some quick math in my head (been involved in a few big renos). It was, um, substantial.

      2. “So… you’re gonna end up paying me $11,000 to move in here.”

        1. “I’ll take that in cash, please”

  15. On a slight tangent – why do people think voice commands are somehow easier than just using a standard interface. Outside of the creep factor of having a machine respond to the verbal abuse directed at it, I don’t see any utility gain from yelling at a machine to do something several times while it does the wrong thing over traditional methods of confusing the computer.

    1. . . . traditional methods of confusing the computer.

      Heh. Love this. Totally stealing this phrase.

    2. I have started to use the voice search on my FireTV, since I don’t keep a keyboard attached to it and “typing” with a remote is absolute bullshit. But those fucking phone systems, where you HAVE to talk to the fucking machine, because noooooooo plugging in my account number on the keypad would just be too easy.

    3. My MiL had borrowed her neighbor’s Echo when we were there over Christmas. Besides being a really complicated jukebox, it wasn’t really useful, and was a PITA to manage at times. The only thing I used it for (besides “Alexa, volume zero”) was an oven timer, and it even sucked at that (the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to label the timer was killer). However, everybody else seemed super impressed with it.

      1. However, everybody else seemed super impressed with it.

        Of those people, how many are responsible for configuring/maintaining their own devices?

        It’s easy to be impressed when your grandkids/niecesnephews/etc are doing all the work to make it work.

    4. I could see it if your hands were occupied with crazy children (or better, pets, since the pets won’t learn to speak well enough to use the thing), but I just remember the admonition from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress about running utilities through a central server.

  16. Is this the part where on Law & Order they lead people into thinking Amazon’s refusal to compel with the request is a bad thing? To paint them, really, as uncooperative libertarian crazies who won’t play nice and help with the investigation?

    1. no, no, no, Rufus, this is an evil, greedy corporation. They’re doing it out of malice and a contempt for justice, clearly.

      1. y’all have it wrong. It will be found out that the CEO and BoT of Amazon Nile Corp. were all personally acquainted with the sex assault victim, and that they had gang raped her in the boardroom before deleting the audio recording off of the Amazon Nile device.

  17. Something they left out – when I use my Alexa, it pops up on my Kindle. Why can’t they just go look at the Amazon account etc?

    1. You have to know account info like password to log into amazon.

  18. I love this one and OH POOR ALEXA for putting up with this. First of all, those who go out of there way to merely bring up this issue are the ones that should be investigated or at least scrutinized very closely for OH DARE I SAY, EVIL BEHAVIOR.

    Think about it, human defense mechanisms and/or strategies kick in for the craziest reasons. In this world of highly advancing technological capabilities I presume there are those of us out that whose brain truly gets in the way.

    How about this and its a ago old trick….turn of the microphone button…WOW IT WORKED

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