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

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



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.