San Francisco, CA- In an unusual case, police in Arkansas are asking Amazon to release data collected by an Echo in the home of a man accused of murdering a friend. But Amazon is reluctant, citing privacy concerns, and has refused to comply with law enforcement's request.
Police in Bentonville, Arkansas believe that an Amazon Echo—a digital assistant– in the home of James Andrew Bates might have overheard the murder of Victor Collins. The murder took place in Bates’ home on November 22nd. Collins and one other person were spending the night at Bates’ home, but the next morning his body was found in Bates’ hot tub. Strangulation was the primary cause of death with drowning listed as a secondary cause and police think Bates was the perpetrator.
The Daily Dot reports that the Amazon Echo device is always on and listening for verbal cues from the user and their voice recordings are kept on a server to improve the Echo. Once a “wake word” like “Alexa” is used the Echo begins recording. Police are hoping the device in Bates’ home caught some background noises that gives them an idea of what went on in the home that night.
Police seized Bates’ device and got some information from it, but it is unlikely they would get an actual recording of the murder, but they could glean some information from the device that could aid their investigation. For instance, data gleaned from a smart water meter, led police to discover that Bates used 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., which is an unusual amount of consumption. Police believe Bates used that water to clean up the scene.
USA Today reports that police asked Amazon to release any data such as audio recordings, transcribed records or other communications twice, but the company has refused to comply with their request. The company told the paper they would not release any customer information “without a valid and binding legal demand.” They also said the object to demands that are too broad. In the past, Amazon has refused to grant a wiretap for an Echo device, Salon reports.
Bates’ criminal defense attorney Kimberly Weber, said that people have the presumption of privacy in their homes, according to the Daily Dot. She said, “I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us.”
Bates’ case is yet another one in which the privacy of individuals clashes with the investigative efforts of law enforcement. Collins deserves justice but violating a person’s right to privacy is a slippery slope. Devices that are always on and potentially recording like the Echo also referred to the Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to raise privacy concerns.
This case is reminiscent of the recent Apple VS D.O.J. and also makes it clear that the laws are not keeping up with technology and that law enforcement needs clearer rules in regards to gathering evidence from electronic devices.