Amazon’s Echo personal-assistant device is in the news this week because police in Arkansas want to use its data in a murder investigation.
Court documents show that in November 2015, James A. Bates of Bentonville, Ark., had two friends over his home to watch an Arizona Razorbacks game, and the next morning, one of the two friends was found dead in a hot tub in the backyard. After investigating the scene and questioning Bates and the other friend who was present, police charged Bates with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
During the investigation, police found numerous high-tech digital devices in Bates’ home, including the Amazon Echo device in his kitchen. As NPR reports, they have since seized that device and gotten some information from it, but they want to check what, if anything, the device recorded around the time of the murder.
Amazon Echo is always listening for a wake, or trigger, word, which is usually “Alexa.” According to NPR, experts say the storage capacity on the actual device is minimal, so only a tiny amount is written and then overwritten as the device listens for the wake word. Once the wake word is spoken and the blue light ring lights up, all the spoken queries get recorded and transmitted to Amazon.com servers.
Amazon.com spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall told NPR, “To be clear, Echo is only streaming audio to the cloud when the blue light is on.”
But according to NPR, a number of Echo users have reported the device turning on and starting to talk without being prompted by the wake word. The device is perhaps mishearing or misinterpreting conversations in the room.
The police in Arkansas may be counting on just that type of accidental recording to help them figure out their case, and they have served a search warrant on Amazon.com for data covering two days around the time of the murder.
Amazon.com has complied with part of the request and supplied account-holder information for Bates and his purchase history, but it has declined to share information from its servers.
In a statement the company said, “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
As NPR notes, just like the Apple-FBI standoff over access to a locked iPhone in the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting investigation, this is another example of law enforcement asking a tech company for access to personal data.
Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, told NPR that this is becoming the new normal.
"We live in the world where we really haven't settled the law or the standard of care for companies that provide in-home devices like that," O'Connor said. "The standards of care—as companies have more and more really specific information about what goes on inside the home—[have] got to be higher and higher.
"A much larger concern, I think, for the country is … how much is the government asking for this behind closed doors," O’Connor said. As NPR notes, that includes information gathered for investigations into people who haven't been charged with any crimes.
Read more at NPR.