Police want Amazon Echo to help solve a murder. Should it?

Police seek to obtain potential audio recorded by an Amazon Echo on the night of a murder, raising new questions in the debate over electronic privacy.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
An Amazon Echo sits on a table in New York. The gadget, which listens to you, answers questions and carries out tasks like calling an Uber or turning on your lights, is finding a place in millions of living rooms. Now it's part of a murder investigation.

As part of an ongoing murder investigation, police and prosecutors in Bentonville, Ark., have issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any records or audio recordings from an Amazon Echo belonging to James Andrew Bates – the suspected killer. 

In addition to the Echo, police say Bates had several smart home devices including an electronic water meter, from which they have obtained records from the night in question.

The request for stored information on the Echo, as well as the examination of the water meter, have led to larger questions about privacy and how that relates to our increasingly intelligent electronic devices. Specifically, as everyday lives become more intertwined with a growing web of connected electronic devices, should the information gathered by these devices be used in a criminal investigation?

On the night in question, Bates invited several friends to his house to watch a football game. The following morning, one friend, Victor Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub surrounded by clear signs of a struggle. While Bates claims to have gone to bed the night before and only came across the body in the morning, data taken from his smart water meter showed that between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., his home used 140 gallons of water – which investigators believe to have been employed in washing away evidence.

While the examination of the water meter has already taken place, police investigators' subsequent request  – a search warrant – to Amazon for “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed words, text records and other data” gathered by Bates’ Echo, has engaged prosecutors in a legal dispute over privacy and the legitimacy of such a request.

The Amazon Echo is a wireless speaker and voice command device tied into the internet that acts as a digital assistant. 

"You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us,” said Bates’ attorney, Kimberly Weber, on the subject, reported Engadget.

Weber’s objection is not entirely unique, raising parallels between the Bentonville case and that of the San Bernardino shooting in which the FBI asked Apple to create a “backdoor” to their iOS operating system in order to unlock an iPhone used by one of the two attackers.

That case, in which Apple chose not to comply, sparked a national conversation over the growing usage and dependency on smart devices and government access to information and the privacy rights of individual citizens.

In a statement released to the public, Apple argued that, “smartphones… have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going. All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission.”

Clear differences in the two cases lie in the fact that one involved encryption policies and the creation of a unique entry into a sealed smartphone, while Bentonville authorities are simply seeking access to information that may have been incidentally recorded by the Echo.

But Lynn Terwoerds, the founder and sponsor of the Voice Privacy Alliance says the request to Amazon is based off of a faulty premise.

Though the Amazon Echo is always on, it is listening for a “wake word” – specifically "Alexa," Amazon or any other programable name – and only records what takes place after such a word has been said. 

According to the New York Times, Ms. Terwoerds sees “serious privacy concerns with this kind of nonspecific warrant,” adding, “we have to fight against the myth of Echo listening in on our every word and sending that data to Amazon – it’s simply untrue.”

Wired also reports that the microphones in the Amazon Echo or Google Home are always listening to you, but the ambient conversations – the things you say before the "wake word" – aren’t stored or sent over a network.

This is not the first time such privacy concerns have been raised about the Echo and similar devices. Following the initial release of the smaller and lower-priced, Amazon Echo Dot, questions were posed about the possibility of eaves-dropping on and/or storage of private conversations.

For their part, an Amazon spokesperson told the Washington Post that they would not “release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us," continuing, “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

Thus, while Amazon – like Apple – has assisted police investigators through pre-existing legal channels, the morally complex question remains: Under what circumstances, if ever, should law enforcement have access to personal electronic devices.

Virginia judge ruled in a 2014 case that police cannot force criminal suspects to give them their password, they can require a suspect to use the fingerprint reader on an iPhone to unlock their device, The Wall Street Journal reported.  In short, as technology shifts, so are the legal boundaries. 

Therefore, Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center tells The New York Times that there should be a “clear legal standard that governs law enforcement access” to the intelligent devices that make up our electronic lives.

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